Disability, Climate Change, and Disaster Response: Equity in the Face of Climate Degradation

by | Mar 2, 2024 | CoE-A | 0 comments

It is no secret that things are changing. Where November was once known for its snowy nights and sledding days, it’s now 60℉ with not a snowflake in sight even as December swiftly approaches. Summers are slowly becoming unbearably hot, devastating once-in-a-lifetime weather events aren’t so once-in-a-lifetime anymore, and cities are being forced to adjust to weather conditions that the infrastructure is ill-fitted to endure. As rising global temperatures continue to cause intense climate degradation that physically alters our natural environments, we will have to grapple with the urgent need for effective climate adaptation measures. This has become one of the most salient issues in global politics today as countries form individual and joint sustainable development goals, climate mitigation mechanisms, and climate change response plans. While this indicates a positive shift towards effective climate policy, it is imperative that any decision-making process regarding climate adaptation and mitigation consider the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities.

Vulnerable populations are more likely to bear the burden of the negative effects of climate change as the challenges they already face due to the institutional marginalization of their identities reduce their access to vital economic and social resilience resources. Looking specifically at persons with disabilities, higher rates of poverty and housing and food insecurity alongside inaccessible information sources, healthcare systems, and adaptation systems leaves them highly vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate degradation. Persons with disabilities who also face discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality are especially impacted by climate change because of the interconnected nature of systems of power. These existing matrices of oppression have resulted in the development of exclusionary adaptation mechanisms that do not account for the specific hazards faced by persons with disabilities and the needs that arise from this vulnerability.

Currently, persons with disabilities face heightened exposure to extreme weather events due to a lack of inclusive disaster preparedness mechanisms. Early warning systems and disaster preparedness programs are often not offered in sign language or audio formats and do not account for the specific assistive needs of persons with disabilities in the event of evacuation. While cities have begun to establish local evacuation mechanisms, these plans do not include provisions for persons with disabilities who require assistance to physically leave their homes or use medical assistive devices. Local and federal governments alike have failed to conduct comprehensive pre-disaster identification of persons with disabilities who need assistance to evacuate, leaving persons with disabilities behind to quite literally brave the storm. 

Persons with disabilities who are able to evacuate their homes face the additional obstacle of inaccessible evacuation centers that lack not just physical accessibility, but also medical accessibility. As climate change worsens, resource scarcity also increases as a result of the degradation of natural resources.   Presently, marginalized communities bear the brunt of resource scarcity, an issue that will only be further exacerbated by the resource shortage brought on by climate change. Government disaster response plans do not factor in the resources such as medical equipment and treatments required by persons with disabilities to live their everyday lives. Subsequently, persons with disabilities that need such resources do not have the same quality of life post-disaster. 

Personal factors alongside environmental factors such as social attitudes, physical infrastructure, and communication barriers also add to the vulnerability faced by persons with disabilities in the wake of climate degradation. Existing systems of marginalization lower the adaptive capacity and resiliency of persons with disabilities, meaning that not only are they at an increased risk of harm during disasters, but their ability to recover from these events is comparatively low. As it stands, climate change will exacerbate present inequities, especially if disability continues to be excluded from climate action measures.

It is critical that local, federal, and international climate adaptation and disaster response mechanisms are created through inclusive, participatory decision-making processes that ensure the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities. Without the direct involvement of persons with disabilities in climate governance, the specific accessibility needs of persons with disabilities in the event of extreme weather disasters will continue to be inadequately met. Not only is it critical that persons with disabilities hold a central role within climate governance, but the voices of disabled people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people must also be platformed within these processes.

The world is changing, and we know that. It is told to us by the rising sea levels and drying rivers. As we forge new pathways to adapt to this uncertain future, persons with disabilities must not be an afterthought. While we simultaneously work towards dismantling the systems of oppression that increase the vulnerability of persons with disabilities to climate change through marginalization, we must center the needs of persons with disabilities in our response mechanisms to ensure equitable protection from the harms of climate change. 


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