How can we build inclusive and sustainable futures for all? Disabled populations and climate and environmental change

Climate and environmental change already have grave and disproportionate impacts on disabled populations, yet these are projected to increase. This constitutes a challenge for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were created to mitigate these changes. Data on climate and environmental change impacts on disabled populations is extremely lacking, despite being the largest marginalized group, and progress in addressing this within the environmental justice framework is slow. Therefore, Kosanic et al. (2022) critically evaluated the different evidence of climate impacts on disabled populations in mainstream academic publishing. With this, they aimed to assess the current state of knowledge, and to provide recommendations for future research and policy regarding the disabled community and climate and environmental change.

Figure 1. An illustration of the disproportionate vulnerability towards climate-related hazards, such as flooding, of people with disabilities (source: Asad, 2017). (Kosanic et al. 2022)

The results from the authors’ literature review demonstrated the climate and environmental impacts on disabled populations and the dimensions of environmental justice that were mentioned. Kosanic et al. (2022) found that there were few studies on this in the mainstream scientific literature. From the studies that exist, the disproportionate impacts on disabled populations due to climate change were found to exist at three different stages: a) Before the disaster (e.g., in accessing urgent information and early warning systems), b) during the disaster (e.g., evacuation, transport, and shelters) and c) after the disaster (e.g., housing, water, food, medical care, education). This was especially apparent during extreme climatic events such as heatwaves that were highlighted as a climatic event  disabled people were extremely susceptible to.

The authors also found that disabled people also face stigma regarding distributional justice, while most of the current research focusses on recognitional justice, such as investigating the consequences of extreme events on disabled populations, especially those with physical disabilities. Kosanic et al. (2022) outlined the importance of acting quickly to incorporate disability issues into procedural justice, due to climate change impacts being associated with high mortality rates and long-term impacts in disabled populations.

Additionally, research on environmental justice and nature’s contributions to people (NCP) is still slow to lift off, especially regarding disabled populations. Kosanic et al. (2022) observed that degradation and loss of NCP could affect disabled populations’ wellbeing in a range of ways and found issues of distributional justice in the different types of disabilities, such as sensory, learning, and physical impairments, and the respective access to NCP. Currently, only few studies suggested that disabled peoples should be a part of the decision-making and policymaking process.

Kosanic et al. (2022) argued that despite the scientific literature not considering disabled populations as an essential stakeholder group in most publications regarding environmental and climate change, they are highly relevant to advancing global sustainability policies. According to the authors, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as SDG 13: Climate Action, requires greater consideration of disabled populations in examining climate stressors, event phases, disability types, and the intersectionality of this with gender, age, ethnicity, and various other social categories.

This review by Kosanic et al. (2022) displayed how disabled populations are not adequately considered in sustainability research agendas and argued that this could hinder progress towards just and sustainable futures. In future research agendas, the application of an intersectional approach was recommended by the authors, along with more disaggregated approaches to research, which consider disability rights throughout the three stages of disasters and beyond.

The authors emphasised the urgent need for better representation for disabled populations in climate change and global environmental decision-making, and suggested that ‘disability specialists’, such as scientists with disabilities and experience in climate and environmental change, could enable greater consideration of disabled populations as relevant stakeholders in the science-policy interface. Kosanic et al. (2022) further maintained that international sustainability research programs, such as Future Earth, IPBES, and IPCC, should ensure that disabled communities are actively engaged in their programs and are adequately represented.

Read the full article by Kosanic et al. (2022) here.

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