A daily commitment to optimism helps Dr. Paul Zeitz ’84—a leader in the fight against global AIDS who is broadening the scope of his activism—continue to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems.
By Meghan Kita | Photos by Brooke Slezak
“This decade, from 2020 to 2030, is going to be the most transformational in human history. We’re on the threshold of a really exciting decade.”
Dr. Paul Zeitz ’84 ends his memoir, Waging Justice, on a scene from September 2015. As an employee of President Barack Obama’s State Department, Zeitz attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. He watches as the 193 member nations approve 17 global sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030, including a goal to act on climate change. He feels joyful, like a revolution is just on the horizon.
Since then, the United States has announced it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a pledge to limit global temperature rise that the UN brokered as a step toward reaching one of its 17 goals. President Donald Trump and his administration have attempted to weaken or eliminate dozens of environmental regulations. Heatwaves, wildfires, floods and other climate-related catastrophes make headlines regularly. And yet...
“Now, I’m even more hopeful about the possibility of bringing forward sustainable development and climate action than I was when the book ended,” Zeitz says. “This decade, from 2020 to 2030, is going to be the most transformational in human history. We’re on the threshold of a really exciting decade.”
Zeitz knows the risks of inaction, or insufficient action. From 2014 to 2017, he directed a State Department team that explored how to use data to achieve sustainable development. He now serves as a senior policy advisor for the Foundation for Climate Restoration, a nonprofit organization that advocates for measures that would lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reverse the loss of Arctic ice. He says things like “complete climate chaos is imminent” and “we’re the generation—the people who are living right now—that’s going to determine whether humans will flourish or go extinct.”
How can optimism coexist with statements like these? Perhaps because Zeitz has experience with witnessing an enormous problem, committing to making a difference and then working to see it through. For example, as president and executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance (GAA), he helped pressure Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to earmark billions of dollars to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa. These investments have saved more than 30 million lives by providing access to testing, medications and mosquito nets.
When it comes to the climate crisis, “the federal government has amazing capabilities that can be brought to bear. What’s missing is the political will,” Zeitz says. “But when you personally commit to something, then everything changes. And right now, I’m committed to the survival of all of humanity."
After Zeitz left Muhlenberg, where he was a biology major, he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and then earned his master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University. While working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1996, Zeitz was assigned to advise the government of Zambia, located in south-central Africa, on matters of public health. He lived there with his family for nearly four years, and he saw the HIV/AIDS crisis up close.
At the time, not even one percent of Africans with HIV had access to the antiretroviral drugs that could keep them alive and prevent infected pregnant women from passing HIV to a developing fetus. The drugs’ cost—$12,000 per patient annually, at that time—was a large part of the issue. Projections showed that one in five Zambians between the ages of 15 and 44 would die from AIDS-related causes at the epidemic’s peak.
Upon returning to the United States, Zeitz connected with like-minded activists to form the GAA, an organization meant to stop the AIDS crisis and advocate for the poorest affected countries. In his leadership role there, Zeitz testified before Congress to argue in favor of canceling the debt of countries in need and funding access to lifesaving medications. His team helped assemble a group of more than 300 organizations to call for the United States to commit to providing at least $2.5 billion annually to fight AIDS. In January 2003, it happened: President Bush pledged $15 billion over five years to treat two million Africans infected with HIV; to prevent seven million new infections; and to care for 10 million other affected Africans, including orphaned or otherwise at-risk children.
Before he left the GAA in 2011, Zeitz collaborated with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who served as honorary co-chair of the GAA, and Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, who worked with the GAA to publish op-eds advancing its agenda. The GAA helped launch Global Action for Children, an organization specifically designed to help vulnerable kids, with $1 million from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. And, the GAA secured a multimillion-dollar grant to launch the Campaign to End Pediatric HIV/AIDS, a program that ran in six African countries.
Today, AIDS-related deaths globally have been reduced by more than 55 percent since their peak in 2004. In 2000, just 2 percent of those living with HIV globally had access to antiretroviral therapy. By 2010, access had expanded to 24 percent of those with HIV, and by 2018, 62 percent. When Zeitz lived in Africa in the late ’90s, less than one percent of those with HIV/AIDS on the continent had antiretroviral access; in eastern and southern Africa today, that rate is up to 67 percent, and in western and central Africa, 52 percent.
“While we’ve made incredible progress in the fight against AIDS in Africa, there are still a million people who unnecessarily die each year, and too many young people, particularly women and girls, who become newly HIV-infected each year,” Zeitz says.
Near the end of his tenure at the GAA, Zeitz began to consider how he might apply the tactics he’d used as an AIDS activist to other global problems. He was interested in peace and justice; in protecting the planet as well as public health; in equality for all humans regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality or socioeconomic status. The UN’s 17 global sustainable development goals covered all these issues and then some.
Zeitz’s advisory work with the Foundation for Climate Restoration allows him to champion the planet-saving cause, which has ripple effects on equity and social-justice issues. He explains that climate work has three facets: restoration, or reversing the damage humans have caused; mitigation, or avoiding causing more damage; and adaptation, or preparing for the consequences of climate change.
“What’s happening right now is that mitigation and adaptation efforts are failing because they’re only designed to make things not worse. It’s not galvanizing humanity,” he says. “If you add in climate restoration as the third leg of the stool, then you can accelerate progress on all three levels. It can reinvigorate and energize the global climate response.” Through the Foundation for Climate Restoration, he’s working on a Climate Restoration Emergency Action Bill with both Republicans and Democrats with a goal of releasing it into Congress as soon as possible.
But climate change is not Zeitz’s only concern. That’s one reason he created Build a Movement 2020, which he describes as “a newly forming, patriotic, revolutionary political movement.” It has five pillars: climate restoration & clean energy transition; sustainable development; ending child sexual abuse and incest; universal healthcare and the end of AIDS; and restoring democracy. Build a Movement 2020’s online hub offers a variety of calls to action: petitions to sign, webinars to take, rallies and marches to attend. Some are organized by Zeitz while others are external efforts.
“I have to wake up every day and make the choice to be optimistic. When I’m able to be persistently optimistic—this is a daily practice—I’m more able to be committed and courageous to take on the big challenges.”
Zeitz imagines Build a Movement 2020 as a network of allies: “While there are a lot of related movements, what we’re offering is an invitation to connect the dots,” he says. “It’s the connective tissue between the movements, so we can actually start winning.” It’s similar to the role the GAA had in uniting a wide variety of groups—including politicians, religious organizations and grassroots activists—with the common goal of ending AIDS. One of the unique objectives of Build a Movement 2020 is a call for a new American Constitution.
“There is this groupthink that the Constitution is sacred and revered, and it has served some people well,” he says. “But why can’t we get together and write a constitution that’s actually more authentically by the people, for the people? I think we can, we should and it would be fun. We can include women. We can include people of color. The first Constitution was written by white, male slave-owners. They intentionally wrote it to protect their privilege and subjugate others. I think it’s run its course. I know we can do better.”
Zeitz admits that he’s not sure whether this concept or Build a Movement 2020 are ideas “whose time has come,” but uncertainty never stops him from trying: Waging Justice details campaigns of Zeitz’s that never got off the ground right alongside the AIDS work that helped change the world. He is certain that humanity is facing a crisis, and that he’s capable of effecting change—he’s done it before!—so he forges ahead, powered by positivity.
“I have to wake up every day and make the choice to be optimistic,” he says. “When I’m able to be persistently optimistic—this is a daily practice—I’m more able to be committed and courageous to take on the big challenges.”