On November 13, when Medibank holds its annual general meeting, shareholders will question how Australia’s biggest health insurer continues to invest tens of millions of dollars in fossil fuels.
The world’s most prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, describes climate change as the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century, yet Medibank has remained invested in coal, oil and gas companies that fuel the problem.
Medibank has been aware of this hypocrisy for at least a full year when the issue was raised at its 2016 AGM.
When pressed by shareholders about its fossil fuel investments, Medibank’s Chairman, Elizabeth Alexander, committed to considering divestment from coal, oil and gas, like it had with tobacco earlier that year.
A year on and we’ve seen little more than splashes of greenwash as Medibank promotes its 6 green star energy rated HQ in Melbourne.
Medibank’s justification for remaining invested in fossil fuel companies is a common excuse: by investing millions in polluting power, it can supposedly engage fossil fuel companies which, says its website ‘have the potential to lead the transition to green energy.’
Who might that be?
Surely it’s not referring to Whitehaven Coal or Santos, companies it is invested in, but which this year have both stated they are working and planning towards a world where global warming hits a catastrophic 4ºC.
It would be a lot easier to take claims about reforming companies seriously if some evidence could be produced to back them up.
Medibank’s main competitors on the other hand appear to be taking the issue far more seriously.
Bupa has told Market Forces it isn’t invested in company shares at all, and both NIB and HCF have recognised the impacts that fossil fuels have on health by shifting their international equities portfolio (but disappointingly not yet their Australian equities) into a product that screens out coal and tar sands companies, as well as those with significant fossil fuel reserves.
HCF stated that it was divesting for the same reasons that it divested from tobacco – that is, the impacts of that industry on customers’ health. Medibank is being left behind.
However, the issue goes beyond Medibank’s investment in the industries harming health. With fossil fuel use and dangerous climate change causing more frequent public health catastrophes, why aren’t Medibank and the entire health insurance industry speaking out about this issue?
When the Federal Government expresses a desire to prolong the life of old, polluting power stations or a university study reveals Melbourne and Sydney will soon have heatwaves that hit 50°C, why isn’t the health insurance industry fighting for its customers by calling for a rapid shift to renewable energy?
If the impacts of climate change and fossil fuels are harming profitability then at the very least Medibank owes it to its shareholders to speak out, if not the people whose health is directly affected by climate change impacts.
All eyes are now on Medibank in the lead up to its AGM. It has had a full year since the hypocrisy of their fossil fuel investments was brought to their attention. If it really is “for better health” as its slogan says, ending polluting investments and speaking out in the interests of its customers and shareholders would be a start.
Author: Pablo Brait is a Campaigner with Market Forces