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Groundbreaking Research

Research on Climate & Disability

Research has been a cornerstone of WID’s work for decades and is a vital component of new Earth Disability project. Why is research important? The answer is simple: we must understand the complex dynamics between climate change and disability to develop the best strategies for resilience. The New Earth Disability initiative uses groundbreaking research covering a range of disabilities, climate impacts, and geographies in intersectional dynamics. Our existing publications cover high-scale research on such topics as heat waves and migration, and we plan much more in the future. This research can be done on its own or as a part of larger policy initiatives and partnerships – for example, through community focus groups to understand local needs and develop adaptation strategies.

WID works with partners to publish research and policy papers, such as this piece from the International Organization on Migration’s Policy Brief Series, “Making migration accessible: Inclusive relocation for people with disabilities”

This research will require partnerships with other agencies, institutions, and organizations which address both climate change and disability issues. Some important research topics include:

  • Existing consequences of climate change and how it has affected people with disabilities
  • Successful advocacy, engagement and response policies
  • Specific topics such as disaster relief and recovery (DRR) or migration policy
  • Focusing in on specific stories, locations or events
  • Utilizing research to develop next steps and avenues for climate adaptation

The information that emerges from groundbreaking research can be used to make positive change at many levels. Ideally, our findings will support stakeholders from activists to policymakers to other researchers looking to expand this important field. As is often the case, it will also take time, energy, and partners – so if you would like to partner or support our projects, please email Alex Ghenis at Alex@WID.org

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Introduction to Climate Change

How Does Global Warming Work?

A painting of a nature landscape. The left third of the painting shows blue skies with some clouds, green grass and the left half of a tree with many green leaves. A vertical line down the center of the tree splits the landscape, and the right two-thirds shows dead tree branches, a bright orange-and-red sky, a blazing sun, and desert sand instead of green grass. 4 birds fly together near the right border.
Climate change may transform landscapes at every place on earth. | Pixabay

The Atmosphere, Greenhouse Gases and Temperature

The Earth – which includes continents, islands, wilderness, cities, rivers, and oceans – is surrounded by a layer of gases called the atmosphere. There are many different gases in the atmosphere including oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hundreds more. This atmosphere is incredibly important: among other things, it contains oxygen for humans and other animals to breathe, and carbon dioxide to help plants grow. Ozone and other gases protect us from cosmic radiation, and meteorites burn up in the atmosphere instead of smashing into Earth. The atmosphere provides many other benefits and is vital for nature, humans, and everything else on our planet.

The atmosphere also helps keep the earth at a stable temperature, unlike the freezing vacuum of space. This happens because the Sun, a fiery ball of gases, sends out rays of heat through space. When those rays reach the Earth’s atmosphere, some heat goes back out to space – but certain gases trap some of it and keep the atmosphere a stable temperature (even through cloudy days or during the night). The gases that trap heat and keep the earth warm are called “greenhouse gases” (GHGs), mainly because they act like a glass greenhouse to keep things warm. There are many of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: the most important and prevalent ones are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – and even though they make up a small percentage of the atmosphere, they are largely what keeps the earth from freezing and allow us to live on it.

However, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been increasing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1870. That’s when people discovered fossil fuels – such as coal, oil, and natural gas – and started burning them in power plants and engines to create energy for electricity, vehicles and more. Burning these fossil fuels does more than just create energy: it also releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (these are called “carbon emissions”). Those carbon emissions have drastically increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In 1870, CO2 levels were approximately 270 parts per million (ppm), but as of May 2018 they are over 410 ppm. Because there are more heat-trapping gases, the earth is getting warmer: the average global temperature has increased by about 1°C, or 1.8°F, since 1870. This amount of “global warming” may not seem like a lot, but it has massive global consequences.

The 2 graphs below show changes in global CO2 levels over the past 800,000 years (top) and since 1700 (bottom), until June 5, 2018. The earth has gone through variations in CO2 over many thousands of years, largely due to shifts in the sun’s output and the earth’s orbit. Over the past 800,000 years, CO2 has fluctuated between a low of 170 ppm and a high of about 300 ppm (up until the modern “industrial era”). However, we have increased CO2 levels above 400 ppm – well more than anything seen in hundreds of millennia. To see different time frames, check out the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s “Keeling Curve” website.

A graph showing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from 800,000 years ago until today. The CO2 levels went up and down many times from a low of 180 parts per million (ppm) to around 300 ppm – but the graph shoots straight upward in the past 150 years and is now over 400 ppm. A reading at the top of the graph says “411.15 ppm”
Scientists have calculated the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over the past 800,000 years by studying ice cores until 1958 and using precise sensors in Hawaii since then. From 800,000 years ago until 1900, CO2 levels never went above 300 ppm. In the last 150 years, they have shot up to over 410 ppm. On June 5, 2018, the level was 411.15 ppm.| Scripps Institute of Oceanography
This graph shows a close-up of CO2 levels from 1700 until today. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 began growing slowly starting in 1870, and have increased dramatically over the past several decades. The rate of increase continues to accelerate.
This graph shows more recent CO2 data, from 1700 until June 5, 2018. Humans started burning fossil fuels in the 1870s, and CO2 levels started growing notably just before 1900. CO2 concentrations have been growing dramatically faster in recent decades as we put out more carbon emissions. | Scripps Institute of Oceanography

This CO2 variation changes weather and other aspects of the world, such as ocean levels. During times of low CO2, the earth falls into “ice ages,” and when CO2 rises we enter “interglacials.” Just looking at ocean levels shows these variations can make a huge difference in the world around us. According to NASA’s page on climate change and sea level:

“Global sea level has fluctuated widely in the recent geologic past. It stood 4-6 meters above the present during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, but was 120 m lower at the peak of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago. A study of past sea level fluctuations provides a longer-term geologic context, which can help us better anticipate future trends.”

What will our Future be?

So, higher CO2 and other GHG levels can dramatically change the environment. Unfortunately, CO2 concentrations are still rising, and the temperature is rising with them. Humans continue to burn fossil fuels and spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and the rate of carbon emissions has continued to grow over the years. Other things are also helping to increase greenhouse gas levels and global temperatures. For example, trees and forests suck CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to grow, but deforestation has taken away those forests and their ability to “sequester” carbon. Cows raised for beef and dairy burp up loads of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And some “natural feedbacks” are releasing more GHGs as the earth warms: for example, climate change leads to more forest fires which release CO2 from burning forests, and then more warming causes more forest fires which release more CO2, and so on; frozen methane at the bottom of the oceans is starting to melt and release into the atmosphere, and “permafrost” tundras filled with frozen methane are also starting to thaw, which warms the atmosphere and leads to more melting; and because floating ice in the Arctic Ocean is disappearing as it warms, there is less reflective ice to send the sun’s heat back into space, while the exposed ocean absorbs warmth and melts even more ice.

This graph shows the variation in average global temperature from 1880 until 2017, using the 1951-1980 average temperature as a baseline. Temperatures vary from year-to-year because of many factors impacting the climate, but there is a clear upward trend since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. 2016 was the warmest year on record, with a global average temperature 1°C above the 20th-century average (2017 was 2nd-warmest at 0.9°C). According to NASA, “seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998.” | NASA

 

This map from NASA shows each area of the globe’s temperature difference from its 20th-century average, in the year 2017. Areas in the far north, including Alaska, Greenland, Russia, and the North Pole, are warming faster than the rest of the world, sometimes reaching 4°F or more. These areas hold many potential “feedback loops,” including methane from thawing permafrost and reduced reflection of the sun’s rays as Arctic sea ice disappears. Melting glaciers in Greenland also lead to rising oceans. An interactive version of the map with years from 1884-2017 is available here | NASA

A warmer atmosphere with higher concentrations of greenhouse gases has many climate-related and other consequences. Direct climate consequences include things such as hotter, longer and more severe heat waves; stronger and more frequent storms and other extreme weather; longer and deeper droughts; more frequent forest fires; stresses to natural environments and ecosystems; and sea level rise flooding coasts and islands worldwide. These climate consequences will impact humanity in many ways: for example, there will be infrastructure damage from storms, flooding and fires; more deaths and injuries from extreme weather and heat waves; migration away from flooding coasts, droughts and more; and political and economic tensions from all of these. It will take partnerships and collaboration to protect nature and people in this changing future.

Scientists are predicting that temperatures will continue to rise, potentially by several degrees Celsius before 2100. Global leaders and activists are putting effort and money into reducing emissions (through renewable energy, zero-emissions vehicles, lifestyle changes and more) and hopefully limiting warming in the process. This “climate mitigation” will absolutely help and may make the difference between climate change we can adapt to and a global catastrophe. Some activists and politicians have also called for specific temperature targets – usually 1.5°C or 2°C above the 20th-century average – but the reality is that every fraction of a degree can have major effects, so life under these targets will still be much different than today. In fact, we are already seeing many dramatic effects of climate change and more is on the way, and in the end even keeping under 2°C may be out of reach. This means that it’s incredibly important to prepare, adapt, and increase our resilience to climate impacts for all people.

This temperature projection from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 report shows different temperature projections from 2005 through 2100, using the 1986-2005 average as a baseline. Under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5), the models show around a 4°C increase by 2100, with uncertainty from around 3°C up to 5.5°C. Under a low-emissions scenario (RCP 2.6), temperatures rise about 1°C by 2100, and models range between 0.25°C to just over 1.5°C. | IPCC

There is widespread debate about exactly how much temperatures will rise and how quickly, especially considering the choices we make around burning fossil fuels, “land-use changes,” and efforts to “sequester” (or pull out) CO2 from the atmosphere. Models compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), like the ones for the graph above, are used most often by advocates and policy-makers alike – but IPCC models have also been criticized for being too conservative. Some recent studies have even argued that temperature changes could be double those of forward by “official” IPCC and government estimates.

The Consequences of a Warmer World

Different areas of the globe will be uniquely affected by climate change. Just to name a few: the American Southwest is likely to see deeper and longer droughts and heat waves, which will endanger health and jeopardize food and water supplies; South Florida, which has most of its land within a few feet of sea-level, will see regular flooding from sea-level rise and more infrastructure damage and injuries from stronger hurricanes; and Greenland will see its many glaciers and ice-sheet slowly melt away, changing the entire landscape and leading to rising oceans. Even local effects can have global consequences, as well: for example, droughts in major agricultural areas can affect food prices at regional, national or global scales; and because we live in a globalized world, damage to ports from storms or sea-level rise may threaten international trade (and the prices and availability of goods worldwide). This means that it is important to study climate impacts on different regions and use that information to plan for adaptation and resilience.

Two photos of disasters. On the left, a silver car drives through a slightly flooded street in Miami, and a multi-story apartment building is visible in the background. On the right, a picture of a wildfire at night, with many trees engulfed in flames and large plumes of smoke.
Different areas of the world will experience different climate impacts. Miami, pictured on the left, is already dealing with occasional “nuisance flooding” during extreme high tides, and regular flooding will become worse with sea-level rise. California and other areas of the Western United States will have more frequent and larger wildfires – the picture on the right shows the “Rim Fire” outside of Yosemite National Park in 2013, which burned more than 250,000 acres. Smoke from Western wildfires can also travel across the country and affect air quality elsewhere. | Wikipedia (flooding) and US Department of Agriculture (fire)

Impacts on People and Specific Populations

Climate change has many consequences on the environment and society at-large. You may have seen images of hungry polar bears without enough sea ice to stay on as they hunt for food, or “bleached” coral reefs damaged by warmer and more acidic oceans (as water absorbs CO2, it becomes more acidic). As we mentioned above, though, climate change will not just affect the “environment” and wildlife – it will also affect society and the people in it. Some examples include:

  • We will see stronger and more frequent storms including hurricanes and the “atmospheric rivers” that hit the West Coast of the US. These storms will damage buildings and infrastructure (such as electricity grids), lead to flooding and landslides, and affect natural ecosystems such as coastal marshes. In terms of effects on society, there are likely to be more storm-related injuries and deaths, insurance and other financial losses, and economic disruptions from lost jobs and infrastructure. Some people may also move away from storm-damaged areas and not return home, essentially ending up as “climate refugees.”
  • Many parts of the world will experience longer and deeper droughts due to climate change; because more precipitation will fall as rain and not snow, areas reliant on snowpack melt for fresh-water (such as California) may also have difficulty accessing water year-round. This will lead to water shortages for personal use, potential agricultural losses, greater risks of wildfire, worse air quality because of fewer “breathing” plants and more wildfire smoke, and even electricity shortages from less water behind hydro-electric dams. Food prices may go up, which can contribute to malnutrition and other health consequences (or economic stress, as people have less to spend elsewhere after buying more-expensive food); lack of clean water can create many public health problems; wildfires can cause injuries, deaths, and economic damage; and poor air quality exacerbates respiratory illness (among other problems).
  • Extreme heat events (“heat waves”) will be more frequent, more intense temperature-wise, and longer lasting. According to one website, “Globally, extremely warm nights that used to come once in 20 years now occur every 10 years. And extremely hot summers, those more than 3 standard deviations above the historic average, are now observed in about 10% of the global land area, compared to 0.1-0.2% for the period 1951-1980.” Heat waves contribute to public health consequences including heat exhaustion and heatstroke, as well as respiratory issues from poor air quality that comes with hotter days. People tend to use more electricity for air-conditioning, which can stress the electric grid. Certain populations – including people with pre-existing health conditions, poor and elderly individuals, and people in urban areas – are more vulnerable to the consequences of extreme heat.

These climate consequences – and more – will not affect everybody equally. People of color, low-income individuals, those in developing countries, women, and other minorities have been shown to bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of climate change. Even more, those most affected by climate change are often the groups that contributed the least to it and have the fewest resources to adapt to its impacts. One group that is especially affected by climate change is people with disabilities – but so far, we have largely been left out of conversations around disproportionate burdens and ability to adapt. WID’s New Earth Disability project aims to ramp up this conversation and focus on ways to support the well-being and resilience of people with disabilities to the effects of climate change. Many leaders and activists have called for “climate justice” which recognizes this disproportionate burden and calls for a human rights approach to climate resilience; we also advocate for disability climate justice and a comprehensive approach to address our needs.

Thank you for reading about climate change, its effects, and the importance of disability climate justice. For more information, please look through the other sections of the NED website!

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NED Introduction

Welcome to New Earth Disability, which is the first major initiative aimed at addressing the intersection of climate change and disability worldwide. We are happy that you have discovered this extremely important topic and we strive to give you more resources to learn and make change in your community. Read on for more.

Why Climate Change and Disability?

Climate change is one of the most significant issues facing the world today, with consequences for the environment, economies, natural resources, public health and countless other parts of society. Many of these consequences endanger lives and well-being world-wide. The climate is changing largely because humans have been burning fossil fuels for the past 150 years – for example, using coal in electrical power plants or gasoline in cars and trucks – which releases carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) into the atmosphere. These GHGs trap the sun’s heat, so when there are more in the atmosphere, it warms the Earth’s atmosphere itself (as well as the oceans, which also absorb heat). Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased from around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 1870s to over 400 ppm today; as a result, average global temperatures have jumped around 1°C (1.8°F) in that timeframe, and scientists predict a change of 2°C or more in the coming decades. Warmer global temperatures lead to other changes including stronger and more frequent storms, hotter heat waves, deeper droughts, rising sea levels and more. These affect individuals and societies, for example through storms causing injuries or coastal flooding forcing people to find new homes. Although we can reduce our carbon emissions through renewable energy and other efforts, the Earth will continue to warm to some extent – and may warm drastically in the coming decades. That means that we must prepare for climate change and build our resilience moving forward.

A satellite view of Hurricane Irma, a large circular storm passing over Puerto Rico in 2018.
Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, was one of several highly destructive hurricanes in 2017 in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast region. Climate change is projected to lead to more frequent and stronger storms in the future. | NASA

People with disabilities (PWDs) are uniquely impacted by the effects of climate change. Disability covers a diverse array of impairments and populations, and climate change leads to a very broad set of consequences – so concerns for the disability community are incredibly complex. For example, somebody with a physical disability may have difficulty finding accessible evacuation shelters during storms, while a person with chronic health conditions may experience exhaustion or even heat-stroke during heat waves. As we adapt to climate change, we must focus on disability-inclusive adaptation and climate resilience at every level possible.
Some examples of the connections between climate change and disability include:

  • Natural disasters: Climate change will lead to more frequent and intense natural disasters, such as hurricanes, flood-causing downpours, or wildfires. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable during natural disasters: they have difficulty evacuating hard-hit areas, escaping damaged buildings, finding accessible shelters, and finding medical and personal support care during emergencies. Therefore, there should be comprehensive disaster readiness and response (DRR) that includes the needs of PWDs.
  • Extreme heat: Climate change contributes to hotter and longer heat waves, where a string of extremely hot days and nights can stress people’s health. Many types of disabilities make it harder to manage extreme heat, and because people with disabilities face higher poverty levels on average, they may have lower-quality housing with less access to air-conditioning (AC) will. Individuals also may not have easy access to cooling shelters, depending on their living situation (i.e limited access to transportation, nearby accessible shelters, or personal support needs in cooling areas). This all puts PWDs at greater risk of life-threatening heat exhaustion or heatstroke during extreme heat events. To improve health and safety, governments and other planners should increase the availability of accessible cooling shelters, provide disability supports at those shelters, improve housing insulation and AC (especially for low-income PWDs), and provide electric utility discounts for PWDs who need them.
  • Climate migration: Hundreds of millions to well over 1 billion people may be displaced due to the consequences of climate change in the coming decades. Some reasons for moving include abandoning flooding shorelines or drought-ridden areas, being displaced by a climate-related natural disaster and never moving back, or even escaping from violent conflict sparked by climate-related effects (i.e. wars over limited water resources). However, it may be difficult for PWDs to move: they may not be able to find accessible transportation or housing, they may not be able to keep healthcare/social services, their personal support networks may become scattered, or they may simply be turned away at borders because of their disability. It is important to guarantee accessible transportation and housing, maintain support networks and medical services, and ensure that migration law does not discriminate based on disability.

These climate-related issues and more will take massive efforts to address. Because so many lives are at stake, we must start those efforts now – and for the sake of people with disabilities, in the most comprehensive way possible. That will require everything from research, to rebuilding infrastructure and services, to creating partnerships between organizations and countries, to enforcing international law. But most importantly, it will take resources, focus, energy, and teamwork. And it is important to start now.

A Red Cross shelter set up in a high school gymnasium, with foldable cots with pillows and blankets and staff in the background.]
Inclusive emergency shelters should always have accessible pathways, personal support, medical supplies and well-trained staff. | FEMA/George Armstrong

New Earth Disability at wid.org

The World Institute on Disability’s “New Earth Disability” (NED) initiative began in 2014 as a blog exploring the intersections of climate change and disability. Over the past several years, it has grown to include detailed research, publications, presentations, and direct partnerships toward inclusive climate resilience efforts. We strive to educate the public, including climate change and disability stakeholders, collaborate with allies and advocate for this important and diverse community. We hope you will join us in this effort.

This section of the WID website is broken up into several topics, from an overview of climate change to the effects of specific climate-related issues. We are continually expanding our research and partnerships – so check back regularly. We are always looking for more partners and collaborators as well, so also please feel free to get in touch with Alex Ghenis, the NED project manager, at alex@wid.org.

In addition to this NED introduction page, NED online offers:

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New Earth Disability (NED)

New Earth Disability (NED)

WID’s groundbreaking New Earth Disability (NED) initiative aims to understand the connections between climate change and disability and address them head-on. This is an incredibly important connection: climate change is arguably the largest challenge our world has ever faced, and people with disabilities are especially vulnerable to its many effects. We use research and partnerships to identify concerns and the best responses, then educate the public and work with other stakeholders to ensure that climate adaptation recognizes our community.

Our Projects Include:

  1. Groundbreaking research
  2. Educational series: seminars, presentations and webinars (videos inside)
  3. Education materials
  4. Partnerships with government, nonprofits & foundations

We also have a regular newsletter with timely articles, events, and research. Our newsletter archive is available online. You can also subscribe to our newsletter. For more information on the newsletter or any NED efforts, please email Alex@WID.org.

Learn More about Climate Change and Disability

We have started researching many of the topics connected to climate change and disability, and more research is on the way. Please, visit the following pages of our website to learn more:

We are always looking for partners in this effort – so if you would like to join our future projects, please contact Alex Ghenis at alex@wid.org.

Climate Change and Disability Videos

The following video is a PowerPoint overview of climate change, disability activism, and how the two intersect.

The next video is a presentation and workshop that lays out the reasons that climate change affects people with disabilities disproportionately and discusses ways you can help.

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