Is climate change the new HIV of our times?
I asked this question when addressing a group of television journalists and film-makers from the Asia Pacific last week. I was making introductory remarks to an Asia Pacific Workshop and Open Film Screening on ‘Changing Climate and Moving Pictures‘ held on 3 – 4 October 2008 in Tokyo, Japan. It was organised by TVE Japan in collaboration with TVE Asia Pacific, and supported by the Japan Fund for Global Environment.
I acknowledged that climate change was not just another environmental issue or even the latest planetary scare. “This time we’re in deep trouble – and still finding out how deep,” I said.
Climate change has brought into sharp focus the crisis in:
• how we grow economically;
• how we share natural resources and energy; and
• how we relate to each other in different parts of the world.
In that sense, I noted, climate change is acting like a prism — helping to split our worldly experience into individual issues, concerns and problems that combine to create it. Just like an ordinary prism splits sunlight into the seven colours (of the rainbow) that it’s made of.
“Climate shows up the enormous development disparities within our individual societies and also between them. When this happens, we realise that climate is not just a scientific or environmental problem, but one that also has social, political, security, ethical and human rights dimensions,” I added.
I then outlined some parallels between the current climate crisis and the HIV/AIDS pandemic that emerged some 25 years ago.
Consider these similarities:
• When HIV was first detected, it was considered a medical issue affecting specific sections of society.
• It took years for the wider societal, development and human rights aspects of HIV to be understood and then accepted.
• Some countries and cultures wasted precious years in HIV denial; a few are still in this mode.
• It took overwhelming impact evidence and mounting pressure from affected persons for states and international community to respond.
• Then…everybody jumped the bandwagon and HIV became a fundable, profitable enterprise.
I have been commenting in this blog about this ugly side of HIV/AIDS in my own country Sri Lanka, where some NGOs and charities have turned HIV activism into a self-serving, lucrative industry. There are fierce ‘turf wars’ to claim persons living with HIV as their institutional ‘property’. Some have appropriated HIV as their own virus, and would rather not allow others to work in this area.
And it’s not just NGOs who are riding the HIV gravy train. The United Nations programme for AIDS, or UNAIDS, created by the UN system in response to the global crisis, has evolved into a behemoth whose efficacy and relevance are now being widely questioned.
UNAIDS “is obsolete and an obstacle to improving healthcare in developing countries” claims Roger England, an international health expert. Writing in the British Medical Journal in May 2008, England pointed out that HIV causes 3.7 per cent of mortality and kills fewer people than pneumonia or diabetes, yet it received 25 per cent of all international healthcare aid and a big chunk of domestic expenditure. This has resulted in wasting vast sums of funding on esoteric disciplines instead of beefing up public health capacity. Despite this criticism, UNAIDS is calling for huge increases in its funding — from its current US$9 billion to US$54 billion by 2015.
All this makes me wonder: is climate the new HIV of our times? This is the question I raised in Tokyo.
I added: “If so, I sincerely hope it does not evolve in the same manner that HIV crisis did. There are worrying signs that the drive towards a low carbon economy is being exploited by various groups – including some in civil society – for self gain.”
Certain development agencies and ‘think tanks’ are clearly exploiting climate change to make money. Suddenly, everybody is ‘climate-proofing’ their activities — meaning they are talking about climate change no matter what they do, whether it is teacher training or micro-credit.
In the run up to the Bali climate conference in late 2007, I wrote a blog post titled ‘Beware of bad weather friends’ about a London-based NGO engaging in some media training on climate issues, but deriving its legitimacy from a dubious survey. This post apparently irked the party concerned a great deal.
In Tokyo, a workshop participant confirmed that this was already happening in his country.
“Every crisis today is being turned into a business opportunity – and not just by the corporate sector,” said Pradip Saha, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India.
He added: “Consultancy companies and some NGOs have realised there is big money to be made in climate related areas like carbon offsets and the Clean Development Mechanism. They are already riding the climate bandwagon!”.
Read the full text of my introductory remarks to the Tokyo workshop.changing-climate-moving-images-nalaka-gunawardene-intro-3-oct-2008