Governmental Climate Action Ignores Disability—Researchers Don’t Have To

People with disabilities are not considered in governmental climate action strategies. Can scientists fill the gaps left by legislation?

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Climate scientists are expressing concerns that governmental climate action policies are neglecting one of the world’s largest and most vulnerable minority groups, people with disabilities.

In a new article published in Nature, Penelope J.S. Stein, from Harvard Law School, and colleagues, suggest strategies for the scientific community to prioritize persons with disabilities in climate research and policy.

“During climate emergencies, individuals with disabilities face two to four times higher mortality rates and are at disproportionate risk from slow-onset climate change, despite having contributed little to global warming. Persons with disabilities must galvanize climate action amidst a discriminatory social and institutional environment that views them as “the least worth saving.” These circumstances impel the question: what can the scientific community do to accelerate critically needed disability-inclusive climate resilience?”

The researchers go on to refer to people with disabilities as experiencing “socioeconomic marginalization and invisibility within government and civil society at large.” This brings to light the difficulty of advocating for oneself as a person with disability. Much of transportation, and many government buildings in and of themselves, are inaccessible to people with different kinds of disabilities, making it difficult to participate in marches, protests, and jobs that fight for climate justice. As government climate action policies continue to ignore persons with disabilities, it becomes more and more difficult for them to carve out visibility for themselves and the threat the climate crisis poses for them.

For this reason, the authors emphasize the power the scientific community could have in giving these issues attention. Their research outlines different ways in which future studies can and should become more inclusive for people with disabilities.

First, they suggest strengthening “disability data” or any data that pertains to people with disabilities. Both the usage of existing disability data and investment into collecting future disability data is stressed as critical. Right now, there is a lack of data when it comes to disaster risk management for people with disabilities. In turn, there is a need to understand and statistically break down the need for disability data itself. It is currently unknown how much research and funding would be needed to ameliorate the more than-doubled mortality rate individuals with disabilities face during climate emergencies.

The authors also found that climate research is not nearly as disability-inclusive as it needs to be. Current clinical trials inclusive of persons with disabilities are few and far between, and even the studies that are inclusive frequently fail to differentiate between different kinds of disabilities.

For instance, research indicates that heat-related illness is affected by ambulatory and cognitive disability, as well as medications and socioeconomic factors. Antidepressants and antipsychotics may have temperature-regulating side effects, and disproportionate poverty rates among people with disabilities lead to a lack of electricity or air-conditioning during a heat wave.

In other words, people with disabilities endure intersectional and widely varying problems caused by their types of disability and their socioeconomic experience during climate emergencies. The current state of much scientific literature does not consider people with disabilities—meanwhile, their problems are diverse and demand diverse solutions and research.

Stein and colleagues argue that organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) could help push effective interventions and garner attention for research funding. However, public-health responses and healthcare systems still fail top-down and refuse to learn from the lived experiences of people with disabilities. It is not individual healthcare professionals who fail people with disabilities but the policymakers who fail to adequately create inclusive training.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a part of the United Nations: “Inclusive governance that prioritizes equity and justice in adaptation planning and implementation leads to more effective and sustainable adaptation outcomes.”

The authors also call on the scientific community to avoid jargon, as climate literacy can improve awareness. People who do not know about the struggles faced by people with disabilities during climate change and people who do not know about climate change itself (or have been misinformed) see a barrier to understanding climate change in the form of jargon used by credible sources. Important information needs to be plain, easily accessible, and jargon-free.

People with disabilities aren’t the only ones left out when it comes to policymaking and climate action. Young people are frequently tokenized or outright ignored when it comes to climate change discussions. There is a history writing of the government writing off people who are concerned about the warming climate, but young people have been especially affected by anxiety and depression when considering their futures. Similar to people with disabilities, both groups face more significant consequences of climate change.

While everything is “urgent” when it comes to tackling climate change, the authors argue that making space for people with disabilities must be prioritized in scientific literature. There are present real-world consequences as governments around the world fail to meet the needs of people with disabilities, and those consequences will continue to be seen as long as research doesn’t change to address the lack of disability data.

 

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Stein, P. J. S., Stein, M. A., Groce, N., & Kett, M. (2023). The role of the scientific community in strengthening disability-inclusive climate resilience. Nature Climate Change, 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01564-6 (Link)

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