"[Climate Change] almost makes irrelevant any advances we get to achieve in stopping AIDS. We might get to defeat AIDS but discover we are getting ourselves fried or drowning."- Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, World AIDS Day, December 1, 2011
During the first week of COP17, as I navigated the many events the Convention in Durban, South Africa had to offer, I was quite focused and steadfastly researched one particular nexus: that between global climate change and global agricultural production. (Just ask my colleagues, I incessantly yapped their ears off about “climate-friendly agriculture this” and “food security that”…) However, when I saw the slogan for this year’s World AIDS Day, held last Thursday, December 1st, was “Getting to Zero,” my thoughts veered toward another nexus: that between global climate change and the HIV/AIDS crisis. This year’s motto could be seamlessly appropriated by the climate change movement and used to refer to emissions reductions rather than new HIV infections or AIDS-related deaths. I thus found myself wondering about the ways in which global climate changes and the HIV/AIDS pandemic might be related. What sort of relationships do the two issues share? Could the impacts of climate change somehow facilitate the spread of the disease? How might communities already dealing with the impacts of HIV/AIDS be affected by the impacts of a changing climate? With the help of a UNAIDS 2008 joint working paper titled “Climate Change and AIDS,” I found that there are many important and dire connections between the two issues and that they all need to be more fully investigated.
Perhaps the most apparent connection between the issues are that they are two of the most grave, daunting, and potentially devastating matters facing modern humanity. Unchecked climate change has the distinct potential to extinguish massive amounts of life on the planet and, by 2001, HIV/AIDS was the 4th leading cause of death at a global scale. Indeed, just the sheer clout that these two issues share warrants a comprehensive examination of their interplay.
A second and equally compelling linkage is that HIV/AIDS and climate change will likely most intensely besiege the same region: Sub-Saharan Africa. On a global scale, HIV/AIDS has a distinctly devastating effect on the peoples Sub-Saharan Africa, with 2/3 of the global total of cases of the disease existing there. The region’s populations will also likely feel the adverse of impacts of climate change at an incomparably harsh level as the region’s already compromised food security will be increasingly challenged by drought and desertification. In fact, if I had to pinpoint the most visceral takeaway of knowledge that I’ll carry away from this convention, it would be that the people of Sub-Saharan Africa are already seeing the impacts of our changing climate and that extreme droughts, floods, and desertification are not standing by, awaiting 2050. Global warming-related events are impacting the region now, drying out its crops, altering its rain cycles, and killing its people. As the UN paper asserts, “…populations with currently high rates of HIV are the most vulnerable to a worsening or prolongation of the epidemic due to climate change.” What might a continued overlapping exposure to HIV/AIDS and climate change on the region do to its people, their communities, and their livelihoods?
Losses in agricultural production also give rise to another intersection constructed by matters of food security and nutrition. Malnutrition, food depravation, and the stress induced by food insecurity exacerbate and facilitate the negative effects of AIDS on the human body, while adequate nutrition and food supplies help manage the disease. So, as climate change threatens Africa’s food security, it could simultaneously bolster the lethality of AIDS/HIV. Could similar effects be brought on by other climate change impacts like air pollution, the shifting of disease patterns, or the onset of disease following extreme flooding?
I see another potential symbiotic relationship between the two issues pertaining to their abilities to erode the adaptive capacities of the communities they affect. Both HIV/AIDS epidemics and extreme climate events have the ability to drain economic and political resources and to eat away at social networks useful in contributing to resiliency. Essentially, as one of these crises seriously affects a community or region, it stifles the community’s ability to respond to other threats, paving a virtual pathway through which the other threat could more easily travel.
Other important connections between these two crises are, woefully, beyond the scope of this blog to explore. For instance, what commonalities do the two issues share in the context of global inequities and justices? What effects might climate-related changes in human migration have on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS? How might changing patterns of other diseases impact those of HIV/AIDS? Is it likely that climate change and HIV/AIDS movements compete for the same global aid funds? Could a comparison of the two matters in terms of their political histories reveal something about a pattern of global decision-making and responses to threats? As they share so many connections, could they be addressed together or could we apply lessons learned from one to the remedying of the other?
Questions like these demonstrate that the connections between global crises concerning HIV/AIDS and climate change are manifold and should be further explored. These linkages are convoluted and unpredictable and many - probably an innumerable amount beyond the very few listed here- have yet to be fully examined. As we await the answers to these questions, let’s all hold out hope that we will steadily “Get to Zero” on both fronts.