At Harvard and across the country, identifying oneself as a “pre-med” is akin to revealing that one has a terrible and infectious disease. Pre-meds are seen as cutthroat, uncaring, and lacking in curiosity. On top of their bad reputations, pre-meds face a long road of studying and education: four years of college, four years of medical school, and an extra few years of residency and fellowships. Throughout the process, they may spend huge sums of money on tuition and living expenses, all the while plagued by stress and sleep deprivation. Who, then, would ever want to be a pre-med? Apparently, 17 percent of Harvard students. And me.
Despite the challenges, I am driven to pursue medicine. For me, being able to truly help people and alleviate suffering makes these obstacles seem unimportant. It is this same motivation to alleviate suffering and improve quality of life that has led me to think seriously about something that may at first seem unrelated: fossil fuel divestment.
Efforts to encourage the University to withdraw its endowment from fossil fuels have been contentious and polarizing. Despite the efficacy of other divestment movements, Harvard administrators and trustees have argued that divesting from fossil fuels is both pointless and misleading. With so much attention on the impact divestment could or could not have, few focus on the motivation for divesting in the first place. It can be difficult to care about something like climate change when the problem itself seems so abstract and distant or when one is, say, going to pursue medicine rather than environment science. But, even as a pre-med, I do care. Climate change carries calamitous implications that should concern everyone at Harvard.
Through international agreements, leaders around the world have set a goal to keep Earth’s warming to less than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in order to limit devastating results. However, without extensive changes, we may be looking at temperature increases of more than four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A report by the World Bank—a rather conservative institution—stated that there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible” and that even temperature rises of less than that will adversely affect hundreds of millions of people.
I suppose these figures can be frightening. But to me, climate change is not about numbers. It’s about people. It’s about suffering and human health, problems that have led me to pursue medicine in the first place. The implications of climate change present a major threat to public health—likely the greatest that we will face in our lifetimes. As the world warms, we can expect increased food scarcity, poorer water quality, altered disease transmission, and large-scale displacements from rising sea levels and severe weather events. Each of these will take a deadly toll on people of every nation.
While climate change will harm people all across the world, its effect on health and lives will not be shared equally. The plight of the poor of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the stories of those unable to flee the path of Typhoon Haiyan illustrate a troubling truth: Those with the fewest economic resources are the first to have their health and lives destroyed when disaster strikes. Climate change may hurt populations in poverty more than others even though those poorer populations are among the least responsible for carbon emissions.
So what’s a pre-med to do? What’s anyone to do? Certainly, we can all cut back on our energy consumption. We can green our buildings and invest in renewable energy. But at the end of the day, we need large-scale action to avoid the kinds of public health problems that I as a pre-med am dedicated to fighting. To facilitate this type of far-reaching action, we need leadership from our government. However, the fossil fuel lobby holds substantial sway over our politicians, spending huge sums to influence legislation and extract billions in federal subsidies. To break this hold, we must stigmatize fossil fuels companies and make it morally untenable for politicians to align themselves with the fossil fuel industry. This will open the door for the creation of policy to prevent the incredible problems in human health that we otherwise face.
I would rather take an organic chemistry exam every single day for the next 10 years than have to tell my children that Harvard—the university that I attended and love—sponsored the fossil fuel industry with its endowment and was thus complicit in the destruction of our world and its people. Harvard, it’s time to divest.
Riley J. Brian ’15 is a human developmental and regenerative biology concentrator in Quincy House. He is a member of Harvard Students for a Just and Stable Future.