28th May 2023


'Eco-ableism', the EU, and climate disaster

  • Current EU climate policies and strategies perpetuate patterns of exclusion and injustice against people with disabilities through 'eco-ableism' (Photo: Paul Green)
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Across Europe, one-in-four have some form of disability, totalling 87 million people. People with disabilities are amongst the hardest hit by the climate crisis and face disproportionate impacts on their livelihoods from environmental disaster.

Take extreme weather events, for example. They can present a higher risk to people with physical impairments, chronic illnesses, and other types of health condition and even present a risk to life. Illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis can be exacerbated during a heatwave because of their temperature-dependent sensitivity. People with respiratory illnesses and heart conditions are amongst the worst affected by high temperatures and air pollution.

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  • Evacuation protocols and processes often fail to provide for those with mobility problems (Photo: Sophie Deracrouix)

It is not just because of existing conditions that people with disabilities are at a higher risk from the climate crisis, though.

A range of systemic and structural causes drive the climate injustices they experience. For instance, many people with disabilities are confronted with insufficient accessible housing options, inadequate living conditions, and economic exclusion, which influence how they can be impacted by, and adapt to, climate crises. This can be further compounded by people's race, class, gender, migration status, sexuality, welfare status, age, and geographic location.

Yet, despite people with disabilities being at higher risk when it comes to the climate crisis and accounting for 25 percent of the population, they are systematically ignored by policymakers and activists alike when it comes to climate action.

Recent research has shown that only one Council of Europe country, Georgia, refers to persons with disabilities in their official plans submitted under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

Not one Council of Europe country refers to people with disabilities in their mitigation policies, and they are consistently under-represented and not meaningfully consulted or invited to participate in climate policymaking decisions.

This results in bad climate policy and solutions, which negatively impact or place disproportionate cost on people with disabilities when it comes to meeting climate targets. This can take the form of seemingly innocent measures, such as the removal of disabled parking bays for cycle lanes or bicycle parking, incentives to use bikes, electric vehicles, and other "environmentally friendly" transport options that are inaccessible to people with disabilities, or carbon pricing schemes or bans on carbon intensive products which can hinder the use of assistive technologies.

Alongside poorly tailored climate policies, governments have also developed emergency responses to environmental disasters that consistently ignore the needs of people with disabilities.

Can't hear the warnings

For example, emergency messaging and warning systems have failed to account for people with hearing or communication difficulties.

Emergency shelters and evacuation transportation, such as dinghies and buses, are not designed with accessibility in mind, and evacuation protocols and processes fail to provide evacuees with access to assistive devices, carers, and other types of necessary support.

This failure in disaster response plans puts lives at risk, with people with disabilities dying or being injured not from the environmental disaster itself, but from the inequities in rescue efforts.

The prevalent ableism that exists in government and policy responses can also be found in the climate movement itself, further intensifying the "eco-ableism" experienced by people with disabilities.

There is a lack of representation of persons with disabilities in climate activism networks, and the planning and design of mass climate mobilisation and direct action present barriers for those with a disability, excluding people with disabilities from fully participating.

Not only that: the way climate resistance is policed is ableist as well. In 2019, a disability hub at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London had to be abandoned after the police impounded accessible toilets and seized wheelchairs, ramps, noise-cancelling headphones, and other independent living aids prior to the event, affecting the health and safety of disabled protestors.

The disability justice movement slogan "nothing about us, without us" critically and urgently applies to how we respond to the single biggest threat to humanity today. The climate crisis impacts us all, yet people with disabilities are all too often excluded from climate policy decision-making and under-served by climate responses.

"Eco-ableism" will cost lives, we need to resist and dismantle it now.

Author bio

Nani Jansen Reventlow is the founder of the NGO Systemic Justice, the first majority BPOC organisation in Europe working to radically transform how the law works for communities fighting for racial, social, and economic justice, and an award-winning human rights lawyer. Jonathan McCully is the head of legal at Systemic Justice, with nearly a decade of experience working on human rights litigation, and expertise spanning the defence of independent journalists and bloggers, digital rights, and social justice.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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