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Disability and Climate Change

The Nexus of Climate Change and Disability

Disability communities face more risk from climate change.  While climate disruption makes many aspects of daily life more precarious and more expensive, its impact is easiest to see in the aftermath of disaster.  Disabled people are particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes—when hurricanes, floods, wildfires, extreme heat, or power outages tear through our usual support systems.  

Crises hit hardest among already marginalized communities.  Disabled people, people of color, poor people, women, elders, queer and trans people, fat people, houseless people, incarcerated people, indigenous communities and others living under colonialism’s long shadow—disaster intensifies existing inequalities.  Those of us who already face structural violence become even more vulnerable to climate disruption.  And we’re less able to bounce back after the storm.

Disabled people always contend with a world that wasn’t built for us.  But the structural barriers we face everyday—hostile architecture, meager public services, shoddy public transportation systems, failures to ensure communication access, bureaucratic tangles for basic life needs—become even more deadly during disaster.

Disabled people bear witness to the risks and realities of climate change.  We face the violence of climate crisis more intensely.  But we also bring crucial insights for navigating climate disruption, for living with and adapting to a changing world. 

Disability Wisdom for Climate Crisis

Disability justice calls us to commit to the long, hard work of mutual liberation.¹  When we live into those aspirations, disability movements become living laboratories for how to contend with interlocking systems of structural violence: with ableism, racism, and capitalism, with queer, trans, and fat hatred, with gender violence and misogyny, with incarceration and control.  These same systems are bound up with our domination and violation of the Earth.

Disabled people have hard-won knowledge about how to navigate a world that was not built for us, a world that has often shut us out.  We’ve honed strategies for making our way through difficult environments.  We know something vital about the practice of adaptation, of figuring out how to change in response to circumstance and constraint.  Because we can’t take access for granted, we often have expertise nondisabled people don’t yet have. 

Disabled folks have cultivated powerful insights about the practice and politics of care.  At our best, we know something crucial about what it means to show up for each other.  About what it means to affirm our own inherent worth, even in the midst of systems that try to strip our dignity, that treat us like nothing more than trash.  We are imagining different futures, new ways of being in relationship with land and place and people.  We are building networks of connection, ecologies of interdependence.  We are dreaming a world where we are all meant to survive.

¹ Disability justice is an organizing paradigm rooted in the intersectional justice struggles of queer and trans disabled people of color, powerfully articulated by Patty Berne and Sins Invalid.  Read more here.

Julia Watts Belser, “Disability and Climate Change.”  Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project.  July 1, 2022.

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