What the climate movement must learn from the fight against AIDS

The battle against Big Pharma was won in a way that offers important lessons for the fight against Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Gas


There is a recurring theme in the debate about climate change: the idea that our brains are “wired to ignore climate change” and that we collectively suffer from “socially organized denial” around the issue. This view is often coupled with claims that the climate movement talks the “wrong sort of narrative”; to the extent that in many forums “climate” and “change” have become dirty words.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Hong Kong, when a broker at a major investment bank complained of his inability to prominently refer to climate change in his research notes. In an impressive tour de force, he had just managed to write a 60 page report into China’s pollution, waste, water and renewables industry which more or less avoided the dirty words entirely; opting instead for safer code-words like “environmental problems”. This is impressive dissemblance given that the country, today the world’s largest emitted of greenhouse gases, is witnessing environmental degradation “on a scale and speed the world has never known”.

Climate campaigners should take inspiration from a social movement which faced greater and more entrenched reticence: the global fight against AIDS. Generations of brave campaigners and clinicians have shown how to effect coordinated global action against powerful denialism currents and vested interests shamelessly financing armies of lobbyists and lawyers worldwide, as portrayed recently in the Hollywood movie the Dallas Buyers Club. The battle against Big Pharma was won in a way that offers important lessons for the climate movement’s fight against Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Gas and their friends: AIDS medication was transformed from a luxury for the rich to a perceived “human right for all”, funded by a global fund and manufactured as generic medicines.

First diagnosed as an illness in 1981, AIDS was widely misunderstood and misrepresented by powerful voices in politics and society; many of whom sought to minimise the threat it posed and to marginalise its sufferers. Its social movement started developing from 1986, demanding universal access to treatment for those living with the disease and succeeded by 2001 in having the UN General Assembly declare in favour of universal access to treatment. By 2008, more than 4 million people in poor countries were benefiting from the previously unaffordable treatment. 

One can never diminish the terrible struggles AIDS sufferers still face today – both in getting access to medicine and finding understanding in their communities and home countries. But neither can we deny the astonishing successes the movement has achieved. The bungling climate movement should learn from its example.

According to Ethan B. Kapstein and Joshua W. Busby’s, AIDS Drugs For All – Social Movements and Market Transformations, there are five factors behind a social movement’s success. These are useful to consider in understanding the divergent fortunes of the AIDS and climate movements.


The first factor is a defined market to fight for. The AIDS treatment movement succeeded by focusing on Big Pharma, pouncing on its weak points and attacking it for favouring profits over people. By contrast, the climate movement’s opponents have successfully made it seem that because harmful emissions come from many activities (power, transportation, agriculture, housing), and multiple energy sources (coal, oil, gas, land use), transforming the market requires transforming how we live, travel, build and trade - a daunting and extremely diffuse objective.

The second is a compelling message and frame. The AIDS movement’s effectiveness in this space, compelling empathy by arguing that the drugs necessary to fight HIV/AIDS were essential for life, starkly highlights the climate movement’s failure to connect climate change to its reality, which according to the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, will – among other calamities - devastate homes, land, and infrastructure, exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs.

The third success factor Kapstein and Busby note is coherence. The AIDS movement focused on clear goals based around universal access to treatment without regard to affordability. In comparison, the climate movement is distinguished by its incoherence. Vast gaps often exist between groups that would be considered to share the same vision; witness for instance the dissonance between the divest movement (calling for divestment from fossil fuel investments) and shareholder activists (calling for the disclosure and pricing of climate risks by companies). 

The fourth factor is low costs to effect change. The AIDS movement leveraged cheap generics while the climate movement cannot seem to articulate the cost-benefit analysis involved in the man-made destruction of our planet. Instead, we are bombarded with ever-increasing estimates of the budgets “wasted” on climate action and the trillions of dollars needed to de-fossilize our way of life. 

Finally, stabilizing institutions are crucial to giving a social movement permanence and efficacy. The fight against AIDS gave birth to such institutions, the most prominent of which is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, partly capitalized via a voluntary tax on airline tickets adopted by no fewer than 14 nations. To date, this fund has disbursed £14bn, saving 8.7 million lives. The climate movement, on the other hand, is hampered by an extensive, costly and highly ineffective UN infrastructure characterized by a spider web of supranational bodies, international conventions, accords, protocols, clubs and investment funds. Most of this UN infrastructure is in effect broken and its latest creation, the Green Climate Fund, has managed so far to spend all the cash it raised on its own expenses and board meetings – climate change be damned.

While these unfavourable comparisons with the fight against AIDS could be dispiriting, the climate movement should turn to them for inspiration. There are many lessons to be learned and applied from AIDS campaigners’ success.

This piece is the second in a series by Assaad W. Razzouk on reviving and reinventing the global climate movement. The first appeared here.

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