The Missing Conversation on Disability Leadership in Climate Justice

Áine Kelly-Costello is a blind and chronically ill storyteller, and an activist for disability and climate justice.

OPINION: I caught Covid-19 in March 2020. It was not unexpected.

I was studying in Sweden at the time, no one was wearing masks and the virus was everywhere.

I can still remember the shocking, sickening feeling in my stomach as my news feed put Sweden’s deadly emphasis on personal responsibility right alongside Aotearoa’s collective call to stay home and to save lives.

The situations of the two countries were not entirely comparable, but the conclusion was clear.

*Little mention of the disability community, despite higher risk of climate change impact
* ‘It’s our collective responsibility’ – Pacific researchers urge world leaders to help islands fight climate change
* Prepare now for weather turbulence or pay extra when it strikes, says gigantic global report

Whether or not those most at risk during a crisis are left behind is a choice that governments, and all of us, make every day.

It’s true for Covid, and it’s also true for the climate crisis.

With climate change fueling extreme weather, that’s a less hypothetical statement than you might think.

In Germany last year, 12 disabled people living in a residential facility died in a flash flood when understaffing and ignoring flood warnings resulted in a preventable tragedy.

In British Columbia, Canada, where hundreds of people died in heat waves last year, Human Rights Watch found that the risks of heat-related illnesses, mental distress and possible death were exacerbated. by the province’s failure to provide targeted support and a heat action plan.

On the other side of the divide, the latest devastating floods in New South Wales and Queensland are leaving people with disabilities in perilous situations. They find themselves without the help they need to get to safety, lose their mobility aids and have to throw away essential medicines due to power outages. This despite the fact that research has already identified similar obstacles during the 2017 New South Wales floods.

In Aotearoa’s National Climate Risk Assessment, people with disabilities are invisible. We’re barely recognized in the government’s draft emissions reduction plan either.

What can MPs, councils, academics, journalists, activists and everyone else do to reverse this grim prognosis and ensure that people with disabilities are not, in fact, left behind?

Áine Kelly-Costello is a blind and chronically ill storyteller, and an activist for disability and climate justice.  She is pictured here holding a white cane, standing in front of a lake in Sweden.


Áine Kelly-Costello is a blind and chronically ill storyteller, and an activist for disability and climate justice. She is pictured here holding a white cane, standing in front of a lake in Sweden.

Reframe the conversation

If you locate one of the few places where people with disabilities are mentioned in the 3,675 pages of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most authoritative panel on climate change, the mention will be ephemeral and will usually hide in the middle of a list of so-called “vulnerable groups”.

Positioning ourselves in this way fuels a deficit, medically oriented, agency-undermining narrative that is forced upon not just people with disabilities but virtually every group facing disproportionate climate impacts, Pasifika in particular. Repeating this message of powerlessness only reinforces the inequitable status quo.

Colonial systems of governance and land use, a profit-driven fossil fuel industry, climate skepticism and backwardness from politicians have certainly put our planet at risk. Yet much remains to be determined about how we collectively act not only to reduce emissions and adapt, but also to co-create an accessible, inclusive, sustainable and climate-friendly future.

Avoid eco-capability

When people with disabilities are sidelined, oppressed or discriminated against in climatic or environmental spaces, it has a name: eco-capacity.

The best-known example is that of the straw ban campaigns. Straws represent a tiny fraction of plastic pollution in the oceans, and yet this aid that some people with disabilities rely on to drink, AKA, to survive, has been systematically targeted.

But eco-capacity can also manifest itself through exclusion. Public transport campaigns that envision car-free cities ignore the realities of some people with physical disabilities for whom cars are essential for their stress-free mobility, or those of us who rely on door-to-door options.

Campaigns for greater use of bicycles and micro-mobility options like electric scooters sometimes overlook the safety concerns of other trail users, including people with disabilities, children and the elderly.

Climate change is fueling extreme weather events.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP

Climate change is fueling extreme weather events.

Prioritize accessibility and inclusion

Whether it’s a board consultation, direct action, social media post, research project, interview opportunity or organizational meeting , people with disabilities will not be there or return next time unless we have access and feel included.

At the last International Climate Change Summit or COP, an access failure was brought to light when Israel’s Minister of Energy and Water Resources, who uses a wheelchair, was prevented from entering the premises in the vehicle in which she had to travel.

Going through the door is fundamental, as are other forms of access.

When engaging with people with disabilities, it is important to ask what accommodations or access needs we have to participate in the conversation, event, etc., as we are all individual.

On the communications side, using plain language, captioning videos and describing images are good starting points.

For many, continuing to have online options to join meetings will remain important even when the pandemic is over.

Call on our expertise

People with disabilities are expert adapters – we spend our lives figuring out how to live and thrive in a world that was not designed for us.

If anyone is in a good position to understand what a climate-friendly future looks like where we can also thrive, it is us, people with disabilities.

MPs, civil servants, councilors and anyone consulting on emergency preparedness or infrastructure spending or shared spaces or whatever the climate theme, make it clear that you would like to hear from people with disabilities.

Reach out to our representative organizations and aim to disseminate information about the consultations widely in our community.

Prioritize the perspectives of people who have been repeatedly marginalized: Maori, Pasifika and refugees with disabilities, for example, and people with complex or multiple disabilities, mental illnesses and health conditions.

Journalists, do the same. There is a drought when it comes to media coverage of leadership with disabilities in climate conversations.

Show us the money

The flow of money is a key driver why projects, communities and values ​​are prioritized in climate action.

We need green investments, budgetary expenditures and research funding to prioritize breaking the cycle of abandonment of people with disabilities. This includes in the government’s 2022 budget.

When people with disabilities are not involved in the design and development of infrastructure projects from the start, for example, the opportunities to build accessibility further down the road diminish, while the cost of doing so increases.

Whether or not those most at risk during a crisis are left behind is a choice that governments, and all of us, make every day.

During the pandemic, the climate crisis and beyond, I challenge all of us to make an intentional choice.

Let’s value lives with disabilities and make room for leadership in our community by reframing the conversation, seeking our expertise, crushing eco-ability, prioritizing our access, and showing us the money.