Breaking barriers in the climate movement

The climate movement hasn’t done enough to centre the needs of disabled people. A more inclusive approach is long overdue
  Published:  19 Jul 2023    |      2 minute read

Over the past century or so, the success of climate and environmental campaigns has rested on the efforts of a diverse range of groups and communities. From solidarity between miners and the LGBTQI+ community during strikes in the 1980s to collaboration between disability rights groups and climate activists in last decade’s fracking campaign, we know that working together with people from different backgrounds can greatly enhance campaigns and lead to long-term benefits.

But access and inclusivity, whether in community groups, events or campaigns, remain a problem within the movement.

Climate breakdown and disability

Disabled people make up a sizable proportion of our society – nearly 1 in 5 people in the UK. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, disabled people are the most “adversely affected in an emergency”, like wildfires and floods – all set to become more frequent due to climate change.

One such example is when, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit 3 of the US’s poorest
states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, rescue services failed disabled and elderly people in the city as emergency services didn’t account for their evacuation needs. The evacuation services didn’t have buses with wheelchair lifts, and they didn’t employ people who could relay information to people with hearing and sight impairments. This discrimination led to many disabled people losing their lives.

Beyond disaster situations, there are multiple structural barriers in everyday life that exclude and harm disabled people.

Take the lack of accessible public toilets in parks, which means some disabled people are excluded from accessing good-quality green spaces. Or the fact that disabled people are more likely to experience fuel poverty because of unavoidable needs like extra heating to help those with mobility issues stay warm, or higher electricity usage to help power assistive technologies.

Problem-solving experts

But as experts in their own lives, disabled people are skilled at problem solving, adapting and overcoming such barriers.

For example, it was disabled people’s groups protesting and committing acts of civil disobedience in the 1990s that led to long-overdue changes to buses and tubes to make public transport more accessible. And when COVID-19 hit in 2020, organisations like Buckinghamshire Disability Service and Mad Covid sprang into action to help address the diverse set of barriers faced by disabled people and people with mental health conditions, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Those key skills of adaptability and problem solving are also crucial to how we tackle the climate crisis.

A lot to learn

Put simply, the climate movement hasn’t done enough to remove barriers and include disabled people in climate conversations. We witnessed a prime example during the 2021 the UN climate conference in Glasgow when Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar couldn’t enter the conference because there was no wheelchair access.

The climate movement has a lot to learn from what has been achieved by organisers and campaigners within the disability justice movement. What’s more, the climate movement needs to centre disabled people’s voices and input if we’re to create a fairer, healthier world that benefits everyone.

Building a better relationship between the climate and disability movements is crucial, and requires us to go beyond seeing accessibility as a tick-box exercise. It’s reliant on consulting, caring and constantly evolving our understanding of what each person needs in order to take part in climate action.

This article was originally published in EarthMatters Issue 104