The New Earth Disability blog was started in 2014 by WID’s Policy and Research Specialist Alex Ghenis with the goal of understanding the intersection of climate change and disability. The blog includes several shorter editorials on the need for adaptation and the format of the historic COP21 climate change Summit in Paris in 2015. There are also two longer research series on heat waves and climate-related migration with two blog posts and three blog posts, respectively. Continue reading for synopses and blog posts in PDF form.
Editorials on Adaptation
Climate change will progress to some extent no matter how much we reduce our carbon emissions. In these posts, NED covers why it is important to adapt to the coming climate change rather than just focus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. These blogs also address why it is important to adapt with a special focus on people with disabilities.
The next piece was originally published on the blog for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who dedicated their work in the month of April to raising awareness about climate change. Thank you for all of your efforts!
The landmark climate change Summit in Paris in the fall of 2015, called the “21st Conference of the Parties” or “COP21,” established a global framework to limit emissions with the goal of staying below 2°C of warming compared to pre-industrial levels. The Summit also focused on staying below 1.5°C if possible. These blog posts reflect on the Paris Summit in two ways: first, the blogs say that the summit itself should have put much more focus on adapting and preparing for climate change rather than just cutting emissions. Second, the blogs outline why setting a goal of 2°C is the wrong way to think. Instead, we should be focusing on the amount of CO2 that is present in the atmosphere–and realistically, 2°C is not possible to meet. We must move beyond that and set more realistic goals.
Climate change will lead to a massive increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and extreme heat events. These two NED blog posts (now combined into one PDF) outline the causes and consequences of those extreme heat events, including the impacts on human health. They also show how these disproportionately affect people with disabilities, their health, and well-being. Finally, the blog posts outline some recommendations to protect the health and well-being of people with disabilities as heat waves progress even more into the future.
It is projected that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced and migrate due to the consequences of climate change, including evacuating from extreme weather events, escaping flooding shorelines, and becoming refugees from conflict sparked by climate factors. This migration will be especially hard for people with disabilities, who may lack access to accessible transportation or housing, experience difficulty maintaining or re-enrolling in healthcare and social services, or simply may be turned away at the border because of their disability. These three NED blog posts (now combined into one PDF) cover the connection between climate change and migration, what that migration means for people with disabilities, and recommended actions to protect their lives and well-being.
Climate change is going to dramatically increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and other extreme heat events in the coming years with some areas projected to reach well over 100°F multiple times a year. This is dangerous for people of all stripes. The mass European heat wave of 2003 led to an estimated 70,000 excess deaths over a three-week span due to people’s difficulty keeping their body temperature cool enough to survive. This is certainly going to be dangerous in the future.
People with disabilities are also especially vulnerable to extreme heat events for a number of reasons. Assorted disabilities often make it difficult to regulate body temperature. For example, people with high-level spinal cord injuries have a lower ability to sweat when their bodies get warm, so they overheat easily. Other social factors also make an impact. Because of disproportionate poverty, people with disabilities on average live in lower quality housing, which is less likely to have air-conditioning. Some cooling shelters may not be easy to get to for people relying on public transit or who are isolated at home–and those cooling shelters may not have necessary medical or other disability supports, as well.
This all adds up to a major danger for people with disabilities in the face of climate change. In order to protect their well-being, there should be disability-focused efforts to reduce the impact of these longer and deeper heat waves. For example, there can be funding to add air-conditioning where needed, special outreach to people with disabilities on what to do during heat waves (included in accessible formats such as Braille), and focuses on making sure that cooling shelters are easily accessible with appropriate supports. People with disabilities should also be given information on what to do during heat waves: best practices for staying cool, where to find government updates about upcoming heat waves, and how to locate a local cooling shelter if needed. These actions and others can save lives worldwide.
For an in-depth overview of how climate change will lead to more heat waves and extreme heat events and what they mean for people with disabilities, please view the New Earth Disability Heat Waves blog in PDF form: Heat Waves (2 parts) (PDF)
Additional Resources about Heat Waves and Climate Change
Climate change will lead to large-scale dislocation and migration on a scale we have never seen, likely with hundreds of millions of people displaced from their homes by mid-century. According to the International Organization for Migration, there will be upwards of 100,000 “climate migrants” in the coming decades–and that migration can lead to social and political strife worldwide.
Climate migration can happen for a number of reasons, including:
people evacuating ahead of strong storms and never returning
people moving in search for resources, such as water
people abandoning “unlivable” homes (e.g. those flooded by rising oceans)
or even refugees from conflicts sparked by climate -related factors.
People with disabilities will have an especially difficult time managing this mass displacement and migration. Among other things, they may:
lack access to reliable, accessible transportation
have difficulty finding accessible and appropriate housing
become disconnected from personal or social support networks
be unable to re-enroll in or maintain healthcare or other social services
or outright be turned away at the border because of their disability.
The earth, which includes land masses and mountains and cities and oceans, is surrounded by a layer of gases which we call the atmosphere. There are many different types of gases in the atmosphere, including oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hundreds more. This atmosphere is incredibly important. First of all, it gives us oxygen to breathe and protects us from cosmic radiation and meteorites. When the rays from the sun reach Earth, some of its gases also trap the rays’ heat and keep the atmosphere warm, allowing us to go outside without freezing even on cloudy days or during the night. This set of gases that trap heat and keep the earth warm are called “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) because they act like a glass greenhouse with plants in it. There are many of these gases in the atmosphere; the most important and prevalent ones are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — and even though they are just a small percentage of the atmosphere, they are largely what keeps the earth from freezing and allows 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 to create energy for power plants 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 released gases 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 2016 they are over 400 ppm. This has also led to a certain amount of “global warming”: the average global temperature has increased by about 1°C (1.8°F) since 1870. It may not seem like a lot, but it has massive global consequences.
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 these emissions 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. Some “natural feedbacks” are releasing more GHGs as the earth warms. For example, there are 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 gases into the atmosphere, and so on and so on. These may also have locked in a certain amount of warming far into the future, no matter how much we reduce our emissions now.
This warming 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; 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 a number of ways. For example, there will be infrastructure damage from storms, flooding, and fires; more deaths 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 many partnerships and much collaboration to protect nature and people into this changing future.
Scientists are predicting that temperatures will continue to rise in the coming decades, potentially by several degrees Celsius. Natural feedbacks and growing “feedback loops” will also contribute to warming, although this is largely ignored by activists and politicians alike. Nobody can say for certain how much temperatures are going to rise, but nearly everybody agrees that a lot depends on how many more emissions we put out. Global leaders are continuing to put effort and money into renewable energy and other low-carbon development around the world. This will absolutely help with global temperatures, and severe emissions cuts may even make several degrees of difference. There has also been a global call to keep warming below a 2°C increase since pre-industrial levels, which policymakers have said is the limit before we experience the “worst impacts” of climate change. The call has spread worldwide and is echoed in nearly every speech, interview, and article that comes out about climate change. It’s largely framed as the point of no return and the stark cut off between stability and catastrophe.
However, there is a catch to that idea that may lead to widespread problems. The whole 2°C argument lays out the vision that staying below that one number is enough to save humanity. For example, some activists might say that “this island will be underwater unless we stay below 2°C,” or they say the same thing for drought or any other impact. In reality, though, each hundredth of a degree has one extra bit of impact. That means that some islands may still be underwater at 1.9°C, or even 1.1°C, as opposed to the 2°C figure saving everything around us. It may ultimately be impossible to reach that goal at all; with the combination of the nature of society, the yet-unaddressed feedback loops, and many other factors, we may overshoot it no matter how much we try. This all means that we will have more storms and heat waves, sea level rise and flooding, food shortages and mass migration, and more. It is absolutely a scary future, but we need to accept it and start getting ready in order to protect ourselves and those around us.
The NED team believes that it is not possible to stay below 2°C, and that we must prepare for more–and we must realize that every extra piece of preparation will have one more piece of positive impact. We can also focus our efforts on protecting the people that need it most, which is a powerful form of climate justice. This is especially powerful for people with disabilities, who need support and specialized adaptation to stay safe in the future of climate change. Please, reach out and join us in our efforts to justly adapt to climate change, for our future and the future of those around us by contacting Alex Ghenis at email@example.com.
Welcome to New Earth Disability (NED), 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 will 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 widespread and growing storms, heat waves, drought, coastal flooding, and more. It has dire consequences for the environment, economies, natural resources, cities, and other parts of humanity in a way that endangers lives and well-being worldwide. The climate is changing largely because humans have been burning fossil fuels, and that burning releases “greenhouse gases” (GHGs), which trap the sun’s heat and warm the earth even more. Many activists are calling to reduce or eliminate emissions to “stop” or even “reverse” climate change, but unfortunately, we cannot stop the warming outright; the climate will keep changing to some level. That means that we must start preparing for climate change and adapt in a way that protects our well-being into the future.
People with disabilities (PWDs) are especially vulnerable to these climate change effects in many ways, whether it’s around inclusive disaster readiness and response (DRR) or finding accessible housing when migrating away from flooded shorelines. Disability covers a diverse array of impairments and populations, and climate change leads to a very broad and interactive set of consequences, so issues of disability and climate change are incredibly complex. Some examples include:
Climate change will lead to more frequent and intense storms, such as powerful hurricanes or flood-causing downpours. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable during storms: they have difficulty evacuating hard-hit areas, escaping damaged buildings, finding accessible shelters, and finding medical and personal support care during extreme weather events. Therefore, there should be comprehensive disaster readiness and response (DRR) that includes the needs of people with disabilities.
There will be longer and hotter heat waves in the future where it may be nearly impossible to go outside because of the temperature. Many types of disabilities make it harder to manage extreme heat; for example, people with high-level spinal cord injuries have difficulty sweating and regulating body temperature. They also generally have lower-quality housing with less access to air-conditioning, and it may be difficult to find and get to accessible cooling shelters. This all puts people with disabilities at greater risk of life-threatening heat exhaustion or heatstroke. To improve health and safety, governments and other planners should increase access to accessible cooling shelters, provide disability supports at those shelters, improve housing, and provide electric utility discounts for air-conditioning use.
Hundreds of millions to well over 1 billion people may be displaced due to the consequences of climate change, such as abandoning flooding shorelines or areas without water, being displaced by a storm and never moving back, or even escaping from violent conflict sparked by climate-related effects. However, it may be difficult for people with disabilities to move; they may not be able to find accessible transportation or housing, they may not be able to keep or re-enroll in healthcare/social services, their personal support networks may become scattered, or they may simply be turned away at the border because of their disability. It is important to guarantee or provide accessible transportation and housing, help to maintain support networks and medical services, and ensure that migration law does not discriminate based on disability.
These are huge issues that will take massive efforts to address. The lives of people with disabilities are at stake, so we must start those efforts now–and in the biggest way possible. That will require everything from research to rebuilding infrastructure and services to creating partnerships between organizations and countries to enforcing international law. Most importantly, it will take resources, focus, energy, and teamwork; it is important to start now.
NED Online at wid.org
The New Earth Disability part of the World Institute on Disability’s website is dedicated to providing information and resources on climate change, its impacts, its effects on people with disabilities, and necessary actions to address their well-being at many levels. WID’s New Earth Disability (NED) initiative has been designed to research the intersections of climate change and disability, educate all partners including climate change and disability stakeholders, collaborate, and advocate for this important and diverse community. We hope you will join us in this effort.
This part of the WID website is broken up into several topics (see below). We are continually expanding our research and partnerships–so please check back regularly. The NED team at WID is always looking for new partners and collaborators as well, so please feel free to get in touch with Alex Ghenis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to this NED introduction page, NED online offers:
Officials and planners around the world are preparing for oncoming climate change, and we want to help. The NED team aims to help climate adaptation planners incorporate disability into their efforts at every level possible. This could include anything from drafting disability sections into planning documents to directly connecting disability and climate adaptation stakeholders at different geographies from cities to entire nations. We are also interested in topics ranging from long-term infrastructure planning to disaster readiness and response (DRR) and other emergency efforts.
We often participate in government planning initiatives, such as the upcoming National Climate Assessment and also, State-level activities in our home state of California. We are excited to partner with other entities, be it through direct consultation or as a part of an official proceeding. For more information, please contact Alex Ghenis at email@example.com.