Climate Change and
People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by climate change. Whether it’s due to natural disasters, climate migration, or economic upheaval, people with disabilities are especially hard-hit by climate impacts. However, there are many opportunities to safeguard our health and well-being through accessible resilience and adaptation. People with disabilities can also benefit from inclusive mitigation, which entails cutting back on emissions in ways that improve access and provide employment opportunities.
An Introduction 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.
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.
An Introduction to Disability Rights
People with disabilities (PWDs) represent approximately 15% of the global population and are an integral part of every community. PWDs are also a very diverse group, with a range of different types of disabilities and assorted relationships with society and the built environment. Unfortunately, they have historically faced barriers to participation in various aspects of social, economic, and political life. Disability advocates – including us at SOA – fight for disability rights to dismantle these barriers and experience empowerment, independence, and full participation in our communities.
There are many categories of disability (e.g., mobility, visual, hearing, chronic health, intellectual, etc.), each of which includes many specific types of disabilities (so, "mobility disability" encompasses people with spinal cord injuries, amputations, cerebral palsy, and numerous other disabilities). And while medical progress is often helpful for improving PWDs' quality of life, disability rights efforts tackle social factors of disability including social stigma, a lack of physical and programmatic access, education and employment discrimination, insufficient government services, inadequate access to healthcare, and more.
The foundation of disability rights is built on several key principles, including:
Equality: People with disabilities deserve sufficient civil rights, opportunities, and supports to put them on an even playing field with people without disabilities.
Inclusion: people with disabilities should be able to participate fully in all aspects of society. This requires changes in public attitudes and actions, plus improving accessibility and supports.
Autonomy: People with disabilities deserve agency over their own lives, with the ability to make choices about things such as education, employment, and living arrangements. Movements for deinstitutionalization and independent living have been crucial for supporting autonomy.
Access: people with disabilities must have physical and programmatic access to public places, services, and activities, and deserve assistive technology to facilitate that access. In general, every aspect of society should aim to follow the 7 Principles of Universal Design.
Representation: People with disabilities should be a part of decision-making processes and ideally have representation on formal decision-making bodies, whether through election or appointment. This follows the disability rights mantra of "Nothing About Us Without Us."
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the five pieces above serve as a good foundation for disability rights. Disability rights should not be treated as a luxury; they are core human rights that are critical to health, well-being, and equality for PWDs. They also benefit the able-bodied population by creating a more vibrant, diverse, and universally accessible society – and disability rights provide security for able-bodied people should they acquire a temporary or permanent disability, which could happen at any time. (This is all the more important given how climate-related factors can lead to chronic health conditions and disabilities).
Sustain Our Abilities applauds the disability rights advocates of the past, present, and future. Their work has improved, and continues to improve, the lives of countless people with disabilities – and disability rights advocacy has set the foundation for our work on disability climate justice.
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.
Our Focus Areas
Learn more about Sustain Our Abilities' focus areas and how to create a more inclusive, accessible world in an age of climate change.
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.
Keep In Touch
Sign up for our newsletter to Take Action alongside SOA. Our newsletter includes volunteer opportunities, job openings, fundraising drives, and chances to make pledges and share your story!