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HIV, Climate Change, and LGBTQ Equality: Parallel Causes


The world's fight is our fight.

It was an honor of a lifetime to help lead a global public relations project with the United Nations Foundation on behalf of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC). The work occurred during the almost two-year run-up to the Paris Climate Treaty Accord that was triumphantly signed by nearly 200 countries in December of 2015.

Part of our task was to help the over 800 UNIPCC climate scientists from around the world (who are not paid) explain their groundbreaking Fifth Assessment Report, a thorough examination about the state of the Earth's climate to the media and public prior to Paris. The UNIPCC, established in 1997, has so far prepared five massive reports since its inception to inform world leaders prior to global U.N. climate conventions. Before the Paris accords, we were able to help scientists speak in simpler and more convincing terms about their work, and the implications for world governments of the United Nations to act sooner rather than later.

Climate Week in New York City, a yearly event that coincides with the annual opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, recently wrapped. Given the enormous crowds of students, which included queer youth, during last Friday's Global Climate Strike, this year's Climate Week was bigger than ever before. And climate change is front and center in the Democratic primary, having its own town halls with the candidates on CNN and MSNBC. After thinking about the fight for climate change and the fight for LGBTQ rights, I realized that there were many similarities in our fights and triumphs. Coincidentally, through the years, our community has heralded major advancements and setbacks alongside those of climate change.


The comprehension of the devastation of HIV and AIDS started to trickle out to society in the early to mid-1980s. At that time, AIDS and HIV weren't so much in the public consciousness since the disease was erroneously perceived as more an "us versus them," gay versus straight, problem. Defined, inaccurately, more by geography, the disease seemed to be concentrated in urban gay communities in the coastal United States. Middle and straight America didn't feel that it affected them. However, when iconic actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS complications in 1985, suddenly there was a face to the scourge, and a more human way of perceiving the disease. His death catapulted HIV and AIDS into the general public's awareness and conversation. It's easy to forget how much of an impact his death had on broadening alertness to the disease.

That same year the issue of an endangered environment and the precursor to climate change also burst into the public discourse. That's when a hole in the ozone layer was first revealed by British scientists. The news was a shock since the damage was far larger than anyone had anticipated. Suddenly, we were warned that smoke pollutants, aerosol spray cans, and refrigerators were lethal weapons that were ripping holes in the Earth's atmosphere. To many, the ozone warning was arguably the start of the conversation about global warming. I can recall the mild panic that the discovery of the depletion of the ozone layer caused. It made everyone feel very vulnerable about the fragility of the Earth, perhaps for the first time.


The first year of the 1990s was a year that saw the first major breakthrough in the treatment of HIV and the first thorough diagnosis of the state of the Earth, giving birth to the terms drug cocktails and global warming. Early in the year, the Food and Drug Administration began approving the first antiretroviral drugs, which laid the groundwork for forthcoming effective drug regimens that slowed the progression of the disease. As the drugs improved and became more readily available over the ensuing years, the long-term diagnosis went on to become more optimistic.

And that same year, the Earth got its first comprehensive diagnosis, and unfortunately the prognosis was dire. The UNIPCC released its First Assessment Report. The inaugural bold and comprehensive study cited an alarming warming of the planet by 0.5 degrees. The report unequivocally concluded that only strong measures, enacted by the world's governments, would halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming became the name of the Earth's ailment and would eventually morph into climate change. The report served as the basis for the establishment of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the first U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 -- also known as the Rio Earth Summit.


Fourteen years later, in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage and set the course for other states to eventually follow. Suddenly, it seemed, every same-sex couple considered moving to Massachusetts or going there for nuptials. It was a significant start in the fight for marriage equality. We realistically realized that we could have more than civil unions or conduct marriage ceremonies without the stamp of approval from a government. It would take 11 years to reach the finish line, but the fight was energized.

And the battle for global climate change action lurched a step forward when activation of a long-debated climate treaty secured its last powerhouse, Russia. The country was the final hold-out for the all-important Kyoto Protocol climate treaty, which was eventually adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, but took years to gain its most crucial signatories. Then, in late 2004, the Russian parliament finally ratified the protocol, which paved the way for the treaty to be fully enforced. In December, all of the world's major powers and carbon emitters agreed to put in place greenhouse gas emissions targets for the first time.


2015 was a watershed year for both the LGBTQ and climate communities. In June, the Supreme Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment required all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states. A dream had finally been realized in the ongoing battle for LGBTQ rights. We had come full circle, and so too climate change. Later that year, the crucial Paris accord was signed, affirming that all country signees take steps to combat climate change. It seemed there was now a bright future for LGBTQ rights and, possibly, Mother Earth. For a moment in time, the world seemed to be just and caring. There was optimism for a bright future forward, and our community and the Earth could take a slight sigh of relief.


That is until our common nemeses, the far right and the Trump administration, turned against humanity by returning us to the era of obfuscation and denial. The U.S. was the undisputed leader in corralling the world to sign the Paris accord, and then this administration ignorantly pulled us out. For the upcoming General Assembly, the U.N. is making climate change the top issue and forging forward without the United States. This year we saw the administration's accelerated rollback of environmental regulations, a dream come true for conservatives like the Koch brothers and their networks.

And, horribly, this year we've witnessed the administration's latest, blatant bias against the LGBTQ community with its desired, diabolical destruction of LGBTQ workers' rights, which I wrote about recently. Our community feels threatened and is taking some extreme measures to counteract conservative aggression. Just this month, the New York City Council passed a resolution overturning its ban on conversion therapy in order to avoid a lawsuit and a likely ruling by a conservative judge supporting the disgusting practice. Suddenly, as with climate change, the battle is on again.

Our community is inextricably linked to the biggest issue facing all of humankind today. It's necessary for climate change to be a part of the LGBTQ platform, and for our community to make sure the candidates we support are unwavering backers of addressing this critical crisis. Let's hope in 2020 we both share big victories that move our causes forward and together again.

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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