09 Dec 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

How climate change disproportionately impacts those with disabilities

From powerful cyclones to extreme droughts, human-induced extreme weather events have become a daily fixture of life today. As stated in the recently published Emission Gap Report, in the 10 years of producing the report, the gap between what we should be doing to reduce the impacts of climate change and what we actually are is as wide as ever.  

But as with everything in life, disasters such as hurricanes do not play out in a vacuum. Social and economic factors affect which countries and communities are hit hardest and require the most humanitarian aid. Now a letter published in Science magazine raises concern about climate change and the disabled community. According to the letter, climate emergencies might disproportionally affect disabled people because of their inherent vulnerabilities and limited access to knowledge.

“There's very little research on the topic,” said Aleksandra Kosanic, a geography researcher at the University of Konstanz who has cerebral palsy, and lead author of the letter. “The disabled population needs to be considered and taken into this conversation around climate change and climate change risks.”

To this end, UN Environment Programme is working around the world to respond to and prepare for disasters and human-induced crises. Knowledge sharing work helps countries and communities to find ways to mitigate environmental risks and address existing challenges. Countries emerging from crises are provided with information on how to strengthen environmental management.

As UN member countries and UNEP staff gather at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid and as the world celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities this month, Kosanic elaborates on three ways that climate change takes a toll on those with disabilities:

1. Disabled populations will most likely have limited access to knowledge, resources, and services to effectively respond to environmental change.

The UN flagship report on disability and development shows that disabled people, and in particular disabled youth, are lagging behind the normal in access to undergraduate education. When you have more knowledge you more easily make decisions. And in such extreme events, if you have good knowledge you have a better chance to survive. In less developed countries, women might not be taught to swim, which can be crucial in an extreme climatic event, especially if they are the caregiver of a person with disabilities.

“People with disabilities need to be included more in the educational system. For that you first need universities and schools to be accessible. We need to educate the disabled community on what to do if a climatic event happens,” said Kosanic.

2. Compromised health makes disabled people more vulnerable to extreme climate events, ecosystem services loss, or infectious diseases.

In a climate emergency disabled people may be more vulnerable to contracting infectious diseases because of underlying conditions, which often don’t allow them to move and to independently access water and sanitation. For example, Hurricane Katrina was found to disproportionately impact 155,000 people with disabilities ranging from visual and physical impairments to learning disabilities.

“In a climate emergency, if you are immobile because of an underlying condition you are more prone to get an infectious water-borne disease. But even in non-extreme events, like air pollution, your health can be compromised in the long term,” said Kosanic.

3. Those with disabilities are more likely to have difficulties during required evacuations or migrations.

In devastating events like hurricanes, floods and cyclones, disabled people, because of limited mobility or impaired senses, might have difficulty evacuating. Although most of the rescue teams are trained to rescue someone with a disability, the disabled population should also be able to instruct someone on what to do to help them. City authorities need to communicate with disabled organizations to arrange safe evacuation of vulnerable groups.  

With extreme weather events and disasters set to increase in a warming climate, more needs to be done to plan for and protect the most vulnerable in our societies. The International Day of Persons with Disabilities reminds us of the importance of thinking outside the box while we work towards building more just, inclusive societies.