Where disability and climate meet

Disabled wisdom and an invitation to community
Illustration of an almost-apocalyptic scene. A man with a ventilation tube sits in front of a factory, whose chimneys spew pollution to fill the upper image. To their left are drooping stick figures around a tree, with an outline of a wheelchair user being held by another on the end of a rope. The scene and background are shades of brown, whereas the man has an orange shirt, and seated on something light-blue. The man has Chinese features, crosses his arms defensively, and wears glasses with dark hair. Signed Tan Kuan Aw 2021.
“I need to breathe”: self-portrait by Tan Kuan Aw

This piece is also available in Spanish on Yo También, and for a podcast discussion, see Áine's conversation with Martyn Sibley.

Hey Debriefers, Áine here.

Last year, Peter asked me if I could write an overview of connections between disability and climate breakdown. Both phenomena are expansive, weaving their tentacles into our daily realities, wellbeing, policy and communities.

After months of reflection, this piece is my attempt to separate out some of those threads while showing how they fit into a tapestry. It's about shifting narratives and finding entry points. It's about being grounded in disability justice and care.

It's an invitation to think about the bountiful sources of connection where disability and climate justice meet. Let's dive in.

Disability Debrief is supported by the people and organisations that read it. Our climate series and curation of resources is supported by CBM Global.

Orienting ourselves

Even without climate breakdown, the world was already an unforgiving, ableist place, not at all designed for us as disabled people to thrive. In the West, we for centuries have been expected to be productive, fit, or smart enough, to conform at any cost, to struggle in silence.

Even now, disabled people still get locked away in institutions, denied decision-making capacity, barred from immigrating and are unjustly criminalised. In some cultures, we have been expected to emanate the supernatural or have conversely been cast off as burdens or curses to the family.

No wonder, then, that disabled people feel it particularly hard when countless extra layers of oppression are landing on us, from being forgotten in superstorms and wildfires, to being considered dispensable in a pandemic, never mind both at once.

The root causes of our oppression, and the root causes of climate breakdown, have a lot in common. That's especially true when we remember that most disabled people live in the Global South, many are indigenous or people of colour, and many live in poverty-including energy poverty. Climate breakdown runs rampant in a world that exploits multiply marginalised people.

Among the other oppressive forces at play are colonialism and imperialism. For centuries, colonisers have plundered indigenous land and ravaged ecosystems. In Nepal, the Americas, Aotearoa New Zealand and everywhere indigenous people live, those with disabilities, and especially women, feel these impacts more acutely.

Capitalism and extractive practices transfer wealth out of local communities to fossil fuel corporates. Now, only 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for over two thirds of the industrial greenhouse gas emissions driving climate breakdown. Many racialised and increasingly impoverished communities – in which disabled people also live – suffered the health and economic impacts of the extraction. It is systems that prize endless production and wealth above all else that have gotten humanity and the planet into this giant mess.

Resisting oppression

Understanding the depth of our collective oppression is foundational to knowing why we, as disabled people and all those in solidarity with us, advocate. It points our efforts in a strategic and harm-reducing direction. It clarifies that the vast majority of climate breakdown comes from systemic and corporate sources. It's not caused by us individually (unless you, reader, happen to be a fossil fuel company CEO!).

That means that messages portraying individuals – particularly disabled people – as not good enough environmentalists because we need plastic straws to drink, need to drive SUVs to maintain independence, or need to eat meat due to other dietary restrictions are harmfully scapegoating us. This particular form of ableism has a name: eco-ableism.

Eco-ableism can creep into consequential decisions within mainstream climate-related areas. For instance, by failing to account for the added complexities of relocating that disabled people contend with, or by designing car-free city plans that take away accessible parking options for those still reliant on door-to-door transport.

There has to be space for us in grassroots activism, in international negotiations, and everywhere in between. When we do get in the door, we also have to remind ourselves who--still--isn't here and ask questions about the realities multiply marginalised disabled people are pointing to. Non-disabled allies within the climate movement should likewise do so in solidarity with us. Asking questions resists our exclusion and insists we must not be sidelined.

What will the next negotiation do to bar fossil fuel giants from continuing to pollute and exacerbate environmental illness within communities already run down by their actions? How will plans to tackle extreme heat in drought-prone regions ensure that women with disabilities, and their families, are not on the frontlines of water scarcity? As cities create more pedestrianised shared spaces, how will we make sure that disabled people, including blind and Deafblind people and people with intellectual disabilities, can walk around confidently and safely?

Holding power to account

Disability advocates and the wider climate movement must not let lawmakers get away with viewing disabled people as expected losses. The logic of inevitability behind the idea that disabled people won't make it when the next flood, superstorm or heatwave strikes is dangerous because it gives politicians a free pass to maintain our structural vulnerability.

This has played out at scale as the pandemic drags on, relegating many in our community to isolation and unnecessary stress thanks to failures to require collective, science-based measures to reduce transmission. Still, in the face of multiple crises, disabled people are demonstrating how we can loudly and persistently prioritise our sick and disabled lives and give ourselves permission to demand better than merely surviving.

Political leaders of high-emitting countries have the leverage, and moral obligation, to significantly slow the pace of climate breakdown and to prioritise climate justice at a local, national and transnational level. Their long-standing failure to do so at the speed and scale required by the Paris agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C will continue to have catastrophic impacts.

While we figure out how to adapt to living within the climate chaos, it's essential to keep the pressure on our politicians to ensure the fossil fuel industry has no future. Without sustained collective advocacy, building indigenous sovereignty through land-back movements can't succeed, fossil fuel companies won't be toppled and political leaders will not act at the speed and scale climate justice demands.

In search of knowledge

How many of us worry about advocating on climate--or conversely bringing disability into our climate advocacy--because we don't feel expert enough? I've often been in conversation with people with relevant lived experience who have doubted their own expertise at the disability/climate nexus.

Being aware of our privileges is crucial, yes, but so is adding our perspectives. It's those of us who are more marginalised who often hold back the most. Working on climate is a collective endeavour. We need frontline communities, scientists, emergency responders, economists, psychologists, policy-makers, artists, healthcare workers, teachers, and young people. We need everyone.

Back in 2017, I'd just started to put together some training materials on making grassroots climate campaigning more accessible and inclusive for disabled people. I wanted that training to be grounded in the sorts of impacts which disabled people were facing from climate breakdown, such as when superstorms or droughts compounded poverty, intensified accessible housing shortages, made accessing clean water challenging and led to precarious healthcare access. At the time, the best I could do was a google. We all have to start somewhere. Stepping into the uncertainty was worth it.

Fortunately, over the ensuing six years, the amount of info at the climate/disability nexus has ballooned. I've put together this living resource collection containing many stories, artistic works and reports amplifying crucial disabled voices on the frontlines. Many disability organisations and disabled people have been doing thankless work in disaster response for years. Their wisdom from policy briefs and lived experience becomes more crucial by the day.

While the knowledge accumulates, much of it remains inaccessible, narrowly serving well-educated and online readers of English. One project trying to shift this is the Disability and Climate Change archive directed by Professor Julia Watts Belser, making available plain language pieces and Spanish translations.

Taking an integrated approach

Climate justice can feel like one more thing on a long list of competing priorities. After all, the cost of living, the pandemic, human rights abuses, conflict, and untold other challenges are vying for everyone's limited capacity. But these advocacy priorities are intertwined with climate realities. Together, they demand an integrated approach which moves beyond single-issue siloes.

Just as naming and emphasising climate connections in advocacy on healthcare or transport or economics is powerful, so too is the reverse: inserting those threads into conversations about climate-specific policy. What those connections look like is highly contingent on the local, national or transnational context we are working within.

We are living in a society grappling with frequent and intense extreme weather, ongoing energy poverty, and transitions away from fossil fuels to climate-friendly jobs, cities and transport systems. There's an urgent, and ongoing, imperative to give disability perspectives airtime as they need to be foundational to reshaping our world towards climate justice.

For disabled people ourselves, our own experiences and those of disabled friends can highlight issues that policy is not engaging with. It's not necessary to be a technical expert; climate policy submissions to local or national administrations need our voices and stories.

Most countries remain at the frustrating stage of needing to remind governments to proactively consult with disabled people and Disabled People's Organisations on climate policy. For organisations, keeping up with policy cycles can be exhausting so it's smart to pick focus points strategically and identify gaps or areas where funding is needed. Many disability organisations coming into the climate space are starting with capacity-building work to orient themselves.

Finding community and agency

Envisioning and moving towards a climate just world is a whole-of-society project. There are no quick fixes or easy answers in an ableist society. But there are a diversity of ways to find our place and agency in the climate movement and I hope you find something that resonates for you.

Disability advocacy spaces can provide fertile ground for taking disability-centred climate action. A leader in this space is Bristol's Disability Equality Forum, who ran a collaborative process to plan how Bristol's low-carbon climate transition can meet disabled people's needs. Equally, disabled people and disabled people's organisations can work alongside climate advocacy organisations to make them more accessible, inclusive and welcoming to disabled people. Bristol Disability Equality Forum (again!) compiled a helpful guide on meeting and process accessibility, available as PDF or Word.

Exploring creativity can offer space to reflect on existential questions and become grounded in our own bodies, emotions and place.

  • In an exploration of Crip Ecology, Petra Kuppers invites us to open our front door, and become attentive to how our bodies relate to the lands we live on and how we move through the world.
  • Rebekah Ubuntu offers a performance-based “Three Movements for Climate Justice: Despair, Hope and Healing.”
  • Ananya Rao-Middleton brings to life the uncomfortable conversations disabled people relying on plastic have too often found themselves in via a comic panel.

Students and scholars can encourage schools and universities to include disabled perspectives in their climate teaching and research priorities. Here's a Teaching & learning guide for disability and climate justice by Molly King and coauthors.

The convergence of climate and disability calls for us to break new ground in the strategies and tactics we use. For instance, in Melbourne, artists and writers recently worked together with the city's emergency management agencies to co-create a flood simulation. As Jonathan Craig, a disabled member of the artistic team shares, the input of the artists was integral to getting so many more of the city's communities in the room, give them new ways to think about the roles they might play, and harness skills and wisdom of those previously seen as recipients of aid.

There's also a role for everyone wanting to create or amplify content on disability and climate intersections. On the social front, we could rally around a hashtag like #CripUpClimate, inspired by the cross movement organising on the #NoBodyIsDisposable hashtag led by disability justice and fat liberation organisers. Social media can be used for “greentrolling” to challenge big oil and to combat climate disinformation. Even sharing why you signed a petition and encouraging friends to is powerful.

Creating the world we want to live in

Marginalised communities coming together can birth little pockets of a world where they fully belong. For instance, it was the lived reality of disabled queer and trans Black, indigenous and people of colour in the US which gave rise to disability justice frameworks.

California-based performance incubator Sins Invalid have set forth ten principles of disability justice, which include being led by those most impacted, being anti-capitalist, cross-movement solidarity, and sustainability – in the sense of listening to our bodies and pacing ourselves individually and collectively. Everyone fighting to uproot unequal systems and envision a transformative care-centred reality can learn so much from disability justice.

Disability justice comes out of the struggles and dreams of those who've always been failed by colonial governmental, legal and economic systems. It deals in complex, messy realities by default because there's no other choice.

As organiser Sarah Jama reminds us, disability justice can "leverage larger conversations about what building a world that doesn’t dispose of people will look like". It "gives people the language to be revolutionary in their politic and to imagine a world where all of us fit".

Small act by small act, we make in-roads on creating the world we want to live in. Collectively, there's a lot of wisdom and care between us, let's continue to soak it in. Here are some of the places you can explore further;

  • The podcast Enabling Commons interviews disabled knowers, makers and doers of climate action and justice. The Disability and Climate Change Archive is another treasure trove.
  • Writers like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Naomi Ortiz show how we can ground our practices of collective care – for the planet, for ourselves, and for each other.
  • On a mental health front, youth organisers in the UK-based Resilience Project train leaders in creating resilience circles, intentional spaces for building collective care. Author and researcher Britt Wray has a wide-ranging set of resources for working with climate emotions.

Staying grounded through connection

For me, connections are a huge part of what staying grounded and being in community means. Learning and sustenance in the advocacy space comes from conversations with other people thinking about disability and climate, whether in activism, academia, policy, emergency response, or our daily lives.

These conversations can be intensely personal, as we grapple with the impacts of superstorms and drought and extreme heat. They can be a form of resistance and solidarity. I recently found a disabled climate activist friend to brainstorm about making climate strikes accessible with. It feels great.

When we have the spoons, sharing disabled and chronically ill wisdom is worthwhile. We can pass on what we know about listening to our bodies, especially with people becoming impacted by environmental illness or long Covid. They may not currently feel a sense of belonging to the disability community. These honest conversations serve as an entry point to disability-centred ways of understanding our inherent value and place in a world not made for us.

This piece is a labour of love, from a disabled climate activist whose understanding of climate justice has gained so much from shared disabled wisdom. We each have our own journey into the climate space and to staying with the struggle.

Let's be in community together,


Get in touch: press reply, leave a comment, find Áine on twitter @ainekc95. The Debrief is at @DisDebrief and on Linkedin.


With many thanks to:

  • Andrew, Umi, Alva and Amanda for your thoughtful feedback and encouragement.
  • Tori for our conversation reinforcing the importance of diverse ways of being in community.
  • Qudsiya who articulated how disability justice-centric ways of thinking are more integral than fixating on whether folks identify as disabled.
  • Olivia for scheming about climate strikes accessibility with me.

Thanks especially to Peter for the reflective and robust conversations and incisive edits which brought this piece to life.

Thanks to Tan Kuan Aw for sharing his self-portrait with us.

Thanks to the individuals and organisations that support the Debrief. Our climate series is supported by CBM Global. We are grateful to Mary Keogh for her particular support and attention to this piece.