Climate Change and
Disability

An Intro to Climate Change

As humanity has burned fossil fuels and modified the environment around us, we’ve created an unprecedented spike in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. These GHGs – called “greenhouse gases” because they trap the sun’s warmth like a greenhouse does – have gradually warmed our atmosphere and heated up our oceans. Unfortunately, the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere is still increasing (and will do so until we get to net-zero emissions), so our global temperature keeps growing along with it.

Office Meeting

Climate change represents the consequences resulting from a warmer atmosphere and oceans. Among other things, extreme weather (e.g., storms and heat waves) becomes more frequent and intense; there are deeper and longer-lasting droughts; wildfires spread faster and wider; glaciers and sea ice gradually melt; oceans rise; some areas have more intense cold snaps; and both precipitation patterns and seasons in general change. These changes transform nature itself: habitats get damaged or destroyed, such as through wildfire or flooded coastlines; animals and plants migrate, shrink in population, or go extinct; invasive species inhabit new territory; and rivers run dry. Ultimately, changing climates and environments impact humanity and everything we’ve built, leaving us with a perilous future. Some examples include damaged infrastructure from storms and wildfires; reduced crop yields from drought and invasive pests; inundated coastal areas due to rising oceans; public health stresses from extreme heat and more disease; and the things above contributing to unstable governments or large-scale migration.

 

We face a very serious future, but we can still make a difference. The two key components of climate action are mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is the process of slowing and even reducing climate change: it involves things like reducing emissions and restoring habitats that can absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Adaptation involves preparing for the climate change that’s heading our way, including through disaster readiness, better water management, reinforcing the electric grid, and even proactively relocating people away from areas that may become uninhabitable (such as soon-to-be-flooded coastlines). We absolutely must work together, both within and between communities, using mitigation and adaptation to build a secure future.

Climate Change and People with Disabilities

People with disabilities are especially hard-hit by the effects of climate change. There isn’t one simple reason; instead, the disproportionate impact of climate change is related to diverse personal vulnerabilities, gaps in government and community planning, inaccessible infrastructure, and more. It is imperative that discussions of climate change, climate justice, and planning and preparation include the concerns of the disability community – and at SOA, we believe that climate justice should be one of the top focus areas for disability rights advocates.

This isn’t a straightforward problem. Climate change affects virtually everything around us, including through the impact of natural disasters, large-scale displacement and migration, expanding infectious diseases, and even a slowing economy with shrinking government revenues. Meanwhile, disability itself is complex: there are innumerable types of disabilities, each of which are affected by diverse climate impacts in different ways; people with disabilities have disproportionately low income and assets, impacting their vulnerability and capacity to adapt; intersectional factors, such as higher rates of disability in communities of color and developing countries, bring up complex climate justice issues; people with disabilities receive different supports depending on where they live; and so on. The result is that climate change touches virtually every corner of people with disabilities’ lives and people with disabilities experience climate change in different and unique ways.

 

Luckily, there is a growing focus on climate justice for people with disabilities in both the disability rights and climate change communities. For example, in July 2019, the United Nations acknowledged people with disabilities with respect to climate change as a human rights concern. The disability community has focused on inclusive disaster response for decades and is increasingly addressing other climate concerns, such as climate-related migration. A growing green economy can benefit people with disabilities and provide much-needed opportunities, including jobs, for us to slow climate change itself. Still, much more needs to be done. SOA believes that every piece of climate adaptation and mitigation must include people with disabilities and the concerns of our community. We are dedicated to work together in community, in all ways possible, to conquer this challenge.

Image by NOAA
Image by Romain Virtuel

We Are Working to Affect Change by:

  • Establishing an international network of people with disabilities, rehabilitation professionals and allies to encourage short- and long-term changes for disability justice in climate mitigation and adaptation

  • Researching how the many impacts of climate change affect people with disabilities, both at the broad level and for specific climate impacts and disability communities

  • Identifying the relationship that people with disabilities have with sustainability efforts and climate mitigation, including how sustainable systems can benefit people with disabilities and how mitigation should be more accessible to, and inclusive of, people with disabilities

  • Developing policy frameworks, proposals and recommendations for accessible, inclusive climate mitigation and adaptation that improve the health and well-being of people with disabilities

  • Creating educational programs and materials on disability justice in climate change for people with disabilities, rehabilitation professionals, climate advocates, policymakers and more.

  • Encouraging worldwide action through the GRAHAM Project and Day for Tomorrow.

COMMUNITY CAN CONQUER CHANGE