Comparing notes on HIV/AIDS and climate change

I was so absorbed in Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague, essential reading for any student of HIV/AIDS, that I can’t recall the point at which I first sensed that a very similar book could be written about climate change.

It may have been in the preface where Steinberg embarks on his mission to discover why so many Africans refuse to take advantage of antiretroviral treatment despite the evidence of its success. Why do people behave irrationally when faced with disaster?

Or it may have been the account of Sizwe’s denial that the virus could be transmitted by normal sexual relations. Ignoring the information programmes of reputable aid agencies, Sizwe prefers the witchcraft theories of village traditionalists. He lives in fear that he will be infected by demons visiting him in the night for sex (the book is published in many countries under the title Sizwe’s Test).

Then there are countless examples of the refusal by the South African health service to support the work of the aid agency, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in creating an infrastructure of effective testing and treatment. This has its source in the perverse refusal of former president Thabo Mbeki to accept the link between HIV and AIDS. Steinberg strives to understand why an intelligent and responsible leader could side with fringe scientists in such a vital matter.

Funded by the Ford Foundation, Steinberg was embedded in a remote South African village, befriending Sizwe as well as the doctor leading the MSF programme.

Perhaps the Foundation could be persuaded to replicate the model, located this time in small town America somewhere in the rust belt. The writer could examine why denial of climate change is most emphatic in the country of NASA and Silicon Valley. Why are Americans so reluctant to reduce their carbon footprint, despite the evident threat to their way of life? And how could an elected president have allowed his oil industry friends to promote crackpot science?

The resulting book’s title could even be presented as Three Letter Plague, Volume 2, with the letters translated from HIV to CO2. The measure of health, the CD4 count in a patient’s immune system, has its parallel in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, each having a critical threshold beyond which survival becomes unlikely.

There was never a more important time to explore the paradox of irrational human behaviour. The doctrines of modern economics presume rational human response to market signals and are in disarray at recent events. The tragedies of HIV/AIDS and climate change reinforce the evidence that our common sense is a mechanism in need of repair.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK