Earth’s climate is changing.
I consider this to be a fairly indisputable fact supported by the research of climate experts, and the fact that at just 26 years old, I am able to recognise that weather patterns have changed since I was a child, with extreme weather events becoming increasingly common. While the Earth has gone through changes in climate in the past, the changes occurred over millennia, not at the accelerated pace we are currently observing. Science also suggests that human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels are significant factors driving this change. This is not up for debate.
I’ve written previously about how difficult it can be to be environmentally-friendly and disabled, predominantly because climate activism is often inaccessible and ableist. Public transport and recycling facilities are often difficult to navigate as a disabled person, pre-prepared food is one of the only safe ways for some of us to cook, and for some members of the community pressurised gas canisters and single-use plastics are essential for survival. In what perhaps could be considered a cruel twist of fate, while it is often harder for disabled people to care for the climate, climate change hits disabled people particularly hard.
A few weeks ago, the UK experienced it’s hottest day on record, exceeding 40°C in the south of the country and reaching 39°C in Leeds, where I live and work. There are many medical conditions, including my own, that inhibit your ability to regulate your own body temperature. While I was fortunate enough to retreat to an air-conditioned office during the day, upon returning home that evening I found myself struggling immensely. It was hard to breathe, I was dehydrating faster than I could drink due to excessive sweating, and even sat down I felt dizzy. It should also be said that thermo-regulation is not just a matter of comfort but safety too, as it only takes a deviation of a few degrees either way before enzymes and other essential proteins begin to denature, which can easily result in death if not rectified. If extreme heat and cold snaps continue to become more common, people like myself are going to find it harder and harder just to keep our own bodies at the right temperature.
There are other issues for disabled people to contend with too. Extreme weather events often result in issues with power supplies, and while for me that might mean remaining housebound until I could charge my wheelchair again, for others it is much worse. Some people rely on electricity to be able to breathe, and when the power fails back-up generators essentially become a tense countdown as they wait for power to be restored.
It is also not uncommon for those with disabilities to rely on vehicles to get around, and unless there is a significant increase in the uptake of electric vehicles, depleting fossil fuel reserves are going to make such transport difficult and expensive to obtain.
Food supply issues obviously impact everyone, but many disabled people have restrictive diets due to various medical conditions, and so they must worry not only about having enough food, but also about having food they can safely consume.
In the very worst-case scenario climate migration may also be required, but inaccessible transport and strict immigration laws that view disabled people as little more than burdens on the state will mean disabled people will struggle to migrate, perhaps even being left behind.
There are countless ways that the destabilised climate will cause issues for disabled people that our able-bodied counterparts do not have to consider, and much like in the pandemic, I would expect deaths due to climate instability to disproportionately impact disabled people.
It is clear that the issue of climate change is not separate from issues of social justice, and that while climate change impacts everyone, certain groups will bear the brunt of the fallout. Many Indigenous peoples across the globe are finding their communities similarly damaged by climate change; this is not an issue for disabled people alone. Yet despite this, we treat environmental activism as if it were a separate and independent issue from those faced by marginalised groups, and the tell-tale signs of racism and ableism are sometimes apparent in movements like the Extinction Rebellion. These problems exclude people from such movements, and we are then blamed for not contributing to a community that does not welcome us.
If we are ever to succeed in restoring Earth’s natural climate cycles, and it really is becoming a big “if”, then it is imperative that we learn not to segregate the issue of climate change from the issues of marginalised communities. Climate change is a social justice issue.