Illustration by Mark Weber

Climate Change, Climate Justice and Disability...

Imagine it’s sometime in the near future. You recently moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, and are desperately searching for accessible housing with no luck in sight. You’re also trying to enroll in Oregon’s Medicaid program and trying to get anti-spasm meds and funding for attendant care. So far, it’s not going well, so you are relying on a couple of friends in Oregon who were gracious enough to do an emergency retrofit of their home and attend to all of your morning routines. You’ve also been able to manage the spasms enough to get by, and you have a memory foam topper so you can crash on their couch without getting pressure sores.

The last couple months were tough ones — and this one’s no different. You’re grateful, though, that there are people in Oregon who care (and that you’re not on so high a dose of baclofen that the withdrawals would be unbearable). You still miss Los Angeles, but you decided to move when California’s ongoing drought resulted in severe water shortages that affected your quality of life. The fact that you waited until the last minute to evacuate also made your move tougher than it needed to be. You were just lucky enough to have a buddy with a hauling van who was also heading north. Goodbye, thirsty LA — Portland is home now.

Start Preparing Now
Let’s be honest — climate change is scary. The warmer atmosphere and oceans will lead to stronger storms, deeper droughts, more intense heat waves and flooded coastlines, and those impacts will endanger lives and livelihoods worldwide. Climate change will even lead to larger global population shifts, such as when people move in droves to escape flooded cities or areas without water. In fact, many of these changes are already happening. 2015 was the warmest year on record, and last year saw the largest hurricane ever recorded. The crazy storms and New England’s record high Christmas temperatures this year were made more intense because of climate change, and people are beginning to abandon Pacific island nations whose coastlines are gradually submerging.

It’s clear people are taking notice — and they want to do something about it. Leaders and activists worldwide are recognizing that we need to cut emissions to slow down the climate crisis, and the recent COP 21 Summit in Paris created a global agreement to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a level that many scientists have set to avoid the “worst impacts of climate change.” Still, climate change will continue getting worse to some extent no matter how much we cut emissions — and unfortunately, we are likely to overshoot that 2 degrees Celsius target no matter how hard we work to try to meet it.

This means we have to start preparing as much, and as soon, as possible. Good preparation entails building more storm shelters for stronger hurricanes, managing our water better for deeper droughts, and maybe even starting to move people away from flooding (or soon-to-be-flooded) coastal cities. It’s a daunting task, but teamwork and effort can smooth the transition.

We Have a Choice to Make
There’s another stark reality that the disability community needs to accept and work to fix: The impacts of climate change will hit people with disabilities harder than our nondisabled peers. We are more vulnerable during storms, as we generally have more medical needs and require accessible evacuation shelters and transit. Many of our disabilities make us more prone to heat exhaustion in heat waves. We tend to rely on support networks, such as friends, family, and personal attendants to stay healthy and independent, and those networks can be fragile in tough times. And because we have disproportionately lower income, savings, and assets, we have less of an ability to support ourselves when the tough times hit.

When you combine climate change with our vulnerability, it’s more than a bit daunting. That LA-to-Portland journey might sound like a dystopian future, but in the coming decades, moves like those may be a reality for many of us. So will struggling to find accessible emergency shelters during stronger storms, to pay air-conditioning bills in hotter heat waves, or to keep health care as economies falter and governments cut back spending. The list goes on.

We have a choice to make. We can become resigned to the scary reality, we can ignore it entirely and get caught off-guard when it’s too late, or we can prepare for the future — and fight to be included when the world finally does the same. In case it’s not totally obvious, number three is clearly the action to take.

Climate Justice
The concept of “climate justice” is incredibly important to our community. It acknowledges that some groups will get hit by climate change harder than others, and we need to give them special attention as we prepare for the future. Up until now, the concept has included those in poverty, people of color, those in developing countries, and others as especially vulnerable groups, but people with disabilities have consistently been left out. Unfortunately, this is par for the course in social justice conversations: our community is all-too-often the “forgotten minority,” even though we experience harm just as other minorities do. We are also one of the largest minority groups, at about 15 percent of the population, so leaders must address our needs.

Our fight for climate justice requires focus, strategy, and action. We must identify how climate change affects our community, come up with actions to keep ourselves safe, and work with allies to turn those actions into reality. All of this — and more — is needed to protect the lives of people with disabilities nationwide and globally.

We’ll also have to address all aspects of climate change, not just the straightforward ones. Besides our obvious need for more disability-inclusive disaster readiness and strategies to make that happen, we must also address more complicated issues, such as spiking food prices and large-scale migration.

Think for a minute about somebody making that long-distance move. Finding accessible housing will be a whole lot easier if apartments are built in advance. Keeping health care will be more likely if the state protects Medicaid funding and revises the application process (or if rules change so that Medicaid can be transferred between states). And the move will be smoother if the person switching cities plans ahead of time and finds support to do so. There are many other actions that can ease the moving process for migrants with disabilities.

Preparation will be much better if we start early rather than wait until problems get worse — or until it’s entirely too late. We should push leaders today to plan for the critical needs of people with disabilities. Luckily, there is already change afoot. Disability activists are fighting for disaster prep nationwide. We need to jump into conversations around complex issues like managing climate migration and raise our unique vulnerabilities and demands. Long story short: we must take advantage of every opening to fight for the inclusion of our needs.

Above all, we should always push for climate justice. At 15 percent of the population, we belong to every demographic group. Climate justice demands that the world recognizes our unique needs as we all prepare for the coming global changes. But will it happen if we don’t fight for it? We’ve fought for disability inclusion before, and we’ve won. We can win again.

By |March 1st, 2016

A policy and research specialist at the World Institute on Disability, Alex Ghenis manages the New Earth Disability project, which addresses how climate change will affect people with disabilities and how people can prepare. Learn more at


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