Wednesday, April 18, 2007

HIV and Climate Change: Diplomatic Equivalent?

In referring climate change to the Security Council today, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett cited as a precedent the Security Council's decision in 2000 to take up the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a security issue, arguing that, "We want to see the same thing happen with climate change, that it comes from the fringes into the mainstream." She then goes on to quote Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, whose economy depends on hydropower from a reservoir that is already depleted by drought, as calling climate change "an act of aggression by the rich against the poor." She glosses Museveni's statement by noting that, "He is one of the first leaders to see this problem in security terms. He will not be the last."

In fact, the Museveni quote underscores how the decision to refer climate change to the Security Council breaks very different, indeed radically different, diplomatic ground from the Security Council's uptake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The HIV epidemic undoubtedly represents a grave security risk for many countries. But the epidemic is not something that one country can be credibly construed as having imposed on or done to another. By contrast, the risks associated with climate change can and perhaps rightly should be seen as an (passive-)aggressive act by one party against another. No one can see the HIV epidemic as an act of war, but given what we now know about climate change, carbon emissions can in some sense be seen as an act of war.

Whatever the moral validity of viewing climate change in these sort of perpetrator-victim terms, as a matter of diplomatic protocol I question the wisdom of any Foreign Minister endorsing the view that what her country is doing constitutes "an act of aggression" -- and indeed implying that her country's main allies are also engaging in such aggression. Obviously we urgently need to address the problem of global warming. But in strict diplomatic terms, an admission like this could provide a precedent for poor countries expressing their demands for change in terms of a rhetoric of political violence. And that's hardly useful.

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