Why HIV Activists and Allies Must Care About Climate Justice

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In honor of Earth Day, we’re discussing the critical ways in which environmental justice and HIV are inextricably linked.

Each and every day, people living with HIV and their allies fight the epidemic on multiple fronts. The fight for universal access to optimal treatment. The fight for human rights for the most vulnerable populations. The fight for domestic resources to fund HIV programming. But all of these fights happen within the larger context of our ever-changing planet – a planet that is under threat from man-made climate change.

Climate science has and continues to document the causes and effects of climate change. We’ve seen record breaking temperatures and a rise in catastrophic weather events. The oceans are become increasingly acidic, snow cover has decreased, and glaciers have retreated.[1] At current trends, the planet’s surface temperature will continue to rise, polar ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, coastal communities will become uninhabitable, and extreme drought and food shortages will increase.[2],[3]

It’s not hard to see how climate change impacts everything – including the fight against HIV.

Climate Change Impacts the Food Security and Clean Water Access of People Living with HIV

Climate change does and will continue to cause food and water shortages around the world, exacerbating the lived realities of communities of people living with HIV. Areas that already suffer from food insecurity and the lack of clean water will undoubtedly face on-going struggles with hunger and poor nutrition – which has a direct impact on HIV prevention, care, treatment and adherence.

Climate Change Directly Affects the Agricultural Livelihood of Communities

Communities who rely heavily on their agricultural workforce – particularly in in low- and middle-income countries – will be hit hardest as changing weather patterns and natural disasters make it more and more difficult to farm crops and sustain cattle. In this way, climate change is a direct catalyst to the cycle of poverty that impacts communities of people living with HIV and beyond. In countries where care and treatment are already inaccessible because of the cost of services – like routine viral load testing – or because of the indirect cost of accessing care – like travel – this works to further keep the human right to health unfulfilled.

The Effects of Climate Change Will Increase Migration, Force Displacement, Disrupt Access to Health Services

Qualitative data from ITPC’s mHealth report, conducted over the course of 2018[4], reveal that PLHIV are already feeling the immediate impact of climate change on their ability to access care and treatment on a day-to-day basis. For many, the rainy season brings deadly floods and heavy rains, restricting their ability travel to health facilities. Those who are unable make it to the clinic for the ARV refills during this time are left without treatment, ultimately impacting their adherence and long-term health outcomes.

Likewise, extreme weather conditions have already made for uninhabitable conditions, forcing communities to migrate elsewhere. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a person living with HIV who must uproot their life faces treatment interruption during relocation, on top of the struggle they may face in navigating an entirely new health system (in which they may or may not be easily linked due to legal residency status).

The Good News? Our Movements Can Work Together

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that we are on track to pass the 1.5°C threshold by 2030, the increase in global temperature that will precipitate the worst effects of climate change. In 2018, temperatures had already warmed nearly 1°C above pre-industrial levels.[5]

As leaders in this fight against HIV we must acknowledge the context in which we operate. The fight for climate justice represents an important and undeniable intersection between all social justice movements – including HIV.

In the same way we demand increase domestic investment in HIV prevention, care, and treatment, we must demand concrete commitments to combating climate change. In the same way that we advocate our governments to enact human rights-based policies that prioritize the health needs of people living with HIV, we must advocate for concrete climate policies that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. We must hold them accountable for the global treaties they sign on to[6] and more so when they fail to do so. We must work to improve systems that prioritize human health and environmental justice over corporate profits and geopolitical negligence.

The time to act is now. And together.

Learn more about taking action to combat climate change here.

Image courtesy of LSHTM Showcase.

[1] https://climate.nasa.gov

[2] http://www.oecd.org/statistics/climate-change-consequences-of-inaction.htm

[3] https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/07/world/climate-change-new-ipcc-report-wxc/index.html

[4] To be published later in 2019

[5] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[6] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement