Do universities with medical schools fail on fossil fuels?

Mar 28, 2023
Medical students walking through corridor at the university.

The greatest threat to human health is environmental destruction, primarily due to climate change, and worsened by biodiversity loss and pollution. It needs addressing immediately by cooperative action throughout society.

But societal cooperation is severely challenged by gross inequality, confusion from misinformation, and bigotry against certain ‘others’, so that the required climate action has failed to materialise. Is there a sector, anywhere in our divided society, where an informed robust response to climate change might be expected?

Universities have expertise in research and teaching in disciplines relevant to understanding global warming: geology, physics, mathematics, biology, oceanography, engineering, and atmospheric physics. They ought to be considered a reasonably supportive environment for intelligent action on climate change.

Furthermore, those universities with medical schools have experience of the health needs of people affected by global warming: injuries from violent storms, near-drownings and immersions from floods, burns and lung disease from fires and smoke, heat-related worsening of illness, depression and anxiety in farmers and rural communities trying to sustain farms that are slowly dying from increasingly capricious rainfall, and insect-born infections (dengue, Ross River virus, malaria, Japanese encephalitis virus) as they appear in previously cool, and now warming, climes.

But have Australia’s universities acted on their knowledge when it comes to climate change, particularly those with medical schools, of which there are 21?

A group of us* from the medical advocacy organisation, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), sought to examine this question.

Our enquiries revealed an entirely inadequate response to the issue from a sector that should constitute a beacon of hope. We were not expecting the universities to be so unresponsive to attempts to define their roles in ethical investment and in addressing climate change.

We searched 21 university websites, wrote letters to university Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and, finally, made phone-calls to university CFO offices to obtain documentation of each university’s investment and divestment rules.

All university websites presented investment plans considering Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) issues. Websites provided overarching statements of intent, but there was only a rare detailing of actual investment choices.

An exception, the University of Tasmania, planned to divest completely from fossil-fuel investments by the end of 2021, placing it first in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for Climate Action.

Another University, James Cook University (JCU), had an evaluation by Mercer Investments Australia Limited of its ESG performance. Mercer uses nine criteria in its scoring of a portfolio, including climate action, and alignment with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. JCU performed better than the market average and claimed its portfolio “…. held no carbon intensive fossil fuels, tobacco producers, cluster munition manufacturers …”.

While university websites provided general statements about long-term ESG aims, almost without exception, they also included opt-out phrases (here, italicized by us) for any robust action toward their over-arching aims, such as:

“The University has a very low risk appetite for pursuing any strategy that puts at risk the financial sustainability of the University over the medium-to-long term.”

“The University monitors the carbon footprint of its investments, wherever possible, and seeks to reduce it over time, and considers investments that provide a solution to climate change or other sustainability challenges ….. where consistent with its investment objectives.”

The letters to the Chief Financial Officers of the 21 universities, asked for details of criteria regulating investments.

In response, we received one reply! We sent the letter a second time resulting in two more replies. After so few responses, we phoned all un-responsive universities. Subsequent to this, we received two further replies with one saying: “. . at this stage we will not be providing the information”.

Some universities were approached through their students, one of whom received a friendly letter from her Vice-Chancellor, which said: “I realise that our approach may not be in line with a simple ‘divest completely and immediately’ and ‘our approach is one that is in line with all sides of the equation – suppliers and consumers’”. This statement, we judge, summarises an ambivalent attitude to climate action.

While a few universities claimed to have divested their fossil-fuel-related investments, the majority of universities provided us with no information. Especially disappointing is the apparent inaction, or worse, obfuscation of the issues by the very sector of our society that has led the science on climate change and our understanding of the serious health consequences for humanity. This inadequate approach by Australian universities appears to reflect university behaviour internationally, as reported in University World News (18-9-2021)

Australian universities need to openly, urgently, and whole-heartedly, clean up their investments if they are to be seen as a measure of what is required to address the climate crisis. Because all sectors of society are needed to address the climate challenge, it seems humanity faces a very bleak future, especially when universities with medical schools fail on fossil fuels.

This oped was co-authored by members of the Business and Divestment Committee of DEA South Australia:  Dr David Everett, Dr Rob Ferris, Ms Bora Hyoung (medical student), Dr Graeme McLeay, Dr Douglas Shaw, Dr Nicolas Wickham and Emeritus Prof John Willoughby, with expert ethical investment advice from Mr Andrew Gaston (Adv.Dip FS (FP); FIPA; SA.Fin). Enquiries to Dr Rob Ferris, Chair, DEA(SA) Healthy Investment Special Interest Group at

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!