Áine here. I've been active on climate justice in some form for almost a decade. I know it can feel overwhelming to be a lone disabled person in climate movement spaces.
Do we put our time into making those spaces more accessible? Do we focus on taking the knowledge that we gain in organising for climate justice back to our own communities? Sometimes it's all too much and we try to assimilate by minimising the disabled parts of ourselves.
In this edition, I'm writing the sort of piece I wish existed when I was new to climate campaigning. I'm bringing together reflections from disabled people bridging disability and climate in their organising, and sharing some of my own journey in climate activism.
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In case you missed it, I'm proud of our much expanded guide to resources on the overlaps between disability and climate.
From showing up as me to showing up for community
As an 18-year-old university student, a guest talk by a pre-eminent climate justice advocate lit a spark for me. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, explained that we'd already burned five times as much coal, oil and gas as the planet could afford, and that we had the power to join together and call for institutions to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby eroding the industry's social licence to operate. The following year, I saw a call-out for getting involved in a divestment campaign on campus. I was immediately keen and equally clueless about activism.
Fast-forward three years to 2017 - the University of Auckland was yet to divest, but we'd built a powerful movement of students and staff across disciplines. Thanks to 350 Aotearoa's commitment to capacity-building, many of us organisers had had access to trainings around climate narratives, strategy, media and more.
Within that movement, access needs had only been something I'd brought up when I felt like I needed to, for myself - a blind (and not-yet-chronically ill) person. I'd allocate myself areas of responsibility where I knew my strengths were - writing and relationship-building more so than organising petition stalls or designing posters. I'd request descriptions of visuals, point out if I needed guided, and occasionally adapt activities so I could take part.
It took three years and multiple ingredients coming together for me to start moving from the individual to the systemic. I was gaining confidence in my own campaign skills, making connections within the wider disability community, and I had the encouragement of 350 staff. I started by running some trainings for 350 volunteers on how climate and disability justice connected and making 350's organising, communications and events more accessible and inclusive.
“You have to see other people like you”
Emma Geen, based in Bristol, England, started out as a climate activist with Extinction Rebellion in 2019. Two years later, she saw by chance the Bristol Disability Equality Forum advertise a role to create a disabled-led community climate action plan. She got the job and made that world-first plan happen.
Working for a disability organisation, and being in that community, she gradually gained pride in her disabled identity. Prior to that role, it had felt too hard to talk about disability. “You have to see other people like you doing something to know that perspective could be valued,” she told me.
With so few people working on the disability-climate nexus in the UK, Emma was inspired to make the disabled-led planning in Bristol more visible. Part of that is speaking directly to the disability community, which Emma still finds are not all on board with giving climate action higher priority. She's keen to see “a new wave of disability activism embedded in a climate lens.”
Nepalese environmental science major and climate activist Umesh Balalmagar, like Emma, did not talk about disability rights at first. It's not that he wasn't aware of the issues. He'd borne the impacts personally, in the precarity of living rurally during the rainy season, and in being denied entry into agroforestry, his preferred course of study.
But Umesh feared being typecast exclusively as a disability rights activist and not a climate activist. He didn't want the stereotypes he sees holding people with disabilities back in Nepal to hold back his own ability to make in-roads within climate spaces. “We are stereotyped as needing sympathy but we need support, opportunity and representation,” he said.
Now though, Umesh is trying to address those systemic prejudices head on, taking a proactive disability and intersectional focus to his climate work.
A theme, which I've heard particularly from advocates in the Global South, is that the connection between disability and disaster risk reduction is better developed than the connection with wider climate advocacy. This makes sense. There is an immediacy to the need for first response that doesn't leave our community behind. Climate chaos is making disasters orders of magnitude more frequent, but the need to be prepared for, and not forgotten in emergencies, predates that.
A consequence of this essential preoccupation is that the initiative Umesh is about to embark on is rare. He'll be training people with disabilities as well as young climate activists without disabilities on disability-inclusive climate justice. Funded by Global Green Grants under the auspices of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, Umesh will facilitate the in-person training across seven provinces in Nepal. The project aims to build capacity and create a report for the Nepalese Government as well as sending a contingent to COP28 in UAE.
Umesh says that people with disabilities know their daily realities and the impacts of disasters, but they don't necessarily know what role climate change is playing in exacerbating them, nor how their lives and livelihoods may need to adapt in the relatively near future. “It's not their fault, that they don't know,” he points out, “it's society's fault.”
“They don't know the weight of the issue”
Nelly Caleb knows intimately the need to work with the most impacted communities to ensure that disasters aren't death sentences and that the ensuing precarity is minimised. She is coordinator of an umbrella organisation of organisations of persons with disabilities in Vanuatu - Vanuatu being one of the countries most at risk from natural hazards. This year, within only two days, the country experienced two cyclones and an earthquake.
“If you want to experience some of the hazards, like volcanos, earthquakes or cyclones, come to Vanuatu, we have all of them,” Nelly offered, when I interviewed her on the Enabling Commons podcast. She urged the Vanuatu Government to put in place a social protection programme which would provide financial assistance to people with disabilities “so that our members won't go hungry when there is a crisis like this.”
Umesh articulated this same intensity of the basics being at stake when I asked him what it was youth activists needed to grasp in Nepal. “They don't know the weight of the issue,” he told me:
“We are the first most impacted community in a disaster, persons with disabilities lose their lives on the frontline. The secondary effect is losing jobs and we are the first to lose jobs. Then food security, we cannot get food for nutrition.
“Normal people have to listen, they can help us on the policy, discourse and negotiation, adaptation, funding for climate resilience, education, access to drinking water … all those activities from the lens of disability.”
Making connections and collaborating
Climate justice and disability justice advocacy are generative and inherently impossible when constricted by siloes. Those of us who are disabled and have been working in the climate or disaster risk reduction arena for a while all seem to wear multiple hats and collaborate across so many spaces. Breaking new ground involves forging inter-movement relationships and understandings where they didn't exist before.
Via his organisation ONG Inclusiva in Chile, Carlos Kaiser is a prolific networker and mainstay of disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction work. He works nationally and internationally to provide people with disabilities the applied knowledge they need in disasters and preparedness, and tries to convey the experiences of those on the ground in policy processes at all levels up to the UN.
“The next flood or earthquake,” he reminds the people with disabilities he's educating - “it could happen to you.” It's about bringing the training down to earth - and keeping it there, even at international meetings, so that those on-the-ground experiences make it to the policy and negotiation forums where they need to be heard. “The UN only ever has high-level meetings,” he observed to me wryly, “never a low-level or medium-level meeting.”
Beyond disaster risk reduction, cross-movement collaborations and pushing disability-related climate work into the mainstream are still in their infancy. But there increasingly are examples to look to. Disability organisations are forming coalitions, partnering with climate justice unions, making films, actively researching, and working with gender and indigenous constituencies in international advocacy.
As for me, outside of the Debrief journalism, I support accessible climate activism capacity-building where I can, and make climate connections on Auckland Council's Disability advisory panel, via the Green Party's disability network, and in migrant rights advocacy.
Tools for change
Guides and background reading which can assist climate organisations to put a disability lens across their work are still limited but the basics are well-documented. I've collected some great pieces in the “Climate activism” section on this page of the Debrief's climate and disability resource guide.
Many of the articles point to the need for climate campaigners to choose narratives and key asks which don't sideline disabled people. For instance, a write-up on eco-ableism from Young Friends of the Earth Scotland and Inclusion Scotland explains why individual behaviour change as a sole climate solution “is always going to be ableist and exclusionary”:
“There are so many marginalisations that lead to barriers to engaging with lifestyle change – disability, poverty, class, geographical access to name a few. One size fits all will never work. More importantly it puts the onus on individuals, not on the systems and powers who are causing the problem.”
Throughout the resources, climate activists from different contexts also raise accessibility and safety. In Cripping climate Activism for instance, Tej, an autistic activist, talks about the inaccessibility of organising they've been involved with in Bangalore. “In this organization there are no disabled activists that I know of because there’s no space for them–mobility of disabled folx is incredibly limited due to poor public infrastructure.”
In her work with BDEF, Emma put together a Protest for All guide, a great start for making public protests and meetings accessible. The guide includes a jargon buster for plain language accessibility, explanations of some common access barriers people with various types of disability may experience at protests, and tips for organising accessible events.
Carlos' organisation ONG Inclusiva created the character of Sofia to educate on disability-inclusive climate justice. Sofia and her community fought back when “a mega-corporation [...] came to change our way of living, destroying everything we knew and loved”. In the video series she explains underlying concepts and calls for people to advocate for this by educating themselves, raising awareness, lobbying for changing laws and policies, and using the courts.
Disability-inclusive and disability-led climate justice are iterative processes. My trainings with 350 Aotearoa led to the creation of an internal accessibility manifesto (email me for a copy). It is framed by the work of Mia Mingus on collective liberation which highlights that access, while necessary, goes beyond logistics and can only ever be a starting point.
Staff have reported the manifesto to be useful in its framing of the connections of disability and climate justice, and operationalising accessibility. It delineates responsibility for different areas of access between Board, staff and local volunteers, including checklists to aid in event planning. We're reviewing it now and looking to build it more thoroughly into onboarding processes so newer team members get in the habit of thinking about accessibility. Embedding the change we're fighting for is never easy.
Building in sustainability
Alongside the abiding sense of being alone while fighting the disability corner in climate spaces comes the concern about whether gains will last when you step away. Too often the work falls on a few people.
Emma reflected that the climate movement tends to be good about talking about self-care and anti-capitalist values, but less adept at putting those values into practice. She speaks to the exhaustion and thanklessness of constant capacity-building in the two directions - among both the climate movement and in the disability community.
In Bristol, the city's clean air zone, which started in 2022, had a very limited exemption period for disabled car owners. This, as well as a lack of central government funding and a lack of concern for accommodating the needs of Disabled people, meant the scheme had several ableist impacts. Though Emma had led a campaign to push for action on dirty air from a social justice platform the year before, she found herself needing to protest the way in which this action was being taken.
Not all were attuned to the real problems air pollution was creating for other disabled people, so Emma found herself being buffeted from both sides - by those who thought she should protest against any action on clean air and those who thought she shouldn’t contest the clean air zone at all. “You don't have to be outright against something,” Emma says, “you can see the value in what's being done while criticising how.”
Recognising limits and leadership
Productivity mindsets are baked into all of us, and climate narratives reinforce them. The glacial pace of political climate action over past decades understandably leads many to call for urgency. They remind us that we are running out of time to avert the most serious consequences of climate chaos. Indeed, it's true that there's no better time than the present for an end to the corporate and extractive greed locking us into reliance on fossil fuels.
But a doomist narrative of a “ticking time bomb” emergency isn't the answer. Sometimes the climate crisis is presented as an apocalypse which we need to do everything right now to avoid, as if some singular answer to saving ourselves lies just out of reach. These narratives compound our individual and collective stress and implicitly deny the importance of pacing ourselves.
We need to account for the bodies and minds that don't confirm to timescales predicated on hustling. And we need to acknowledge the states of chronic crisis that disabled, racialised and many Global South communities have long been enmeshed in, which are exacerbated, but not solely caused by, climate chaos.
As disabled scholar Julia Watts Belser writes, the climate crisis calls for us to collectively and individually recognise our limits. It's a call for caution, but not a despairing one. “Limits can be generative,” she reminds us. “Disabled people know precarity intimately. But we also know something about how to find beauty and claim pleasure, even when we ache.”
Getting sick with long Covid has made me accept that I must work on crip time because nothing else is viable. It's meant thinking about accountability flexibly and foregrounding good communication rather than the all-or-nothing of immutable deadlines. It's still a struggle, but within disabled community, it's meant I can keep creating, can keep writing features like this one.
Disabled people's lived experience and ways of being in the world are an integral part of bringing about climate justice, today, next decade and next century. Disabled people had better believe that, and climate organisers have to make space for our leadership.
With love to all the disabled climate activists and our allies already making these visions real,
Thanks to Tan Kuan Aw for the illustration.
Thank you very much to Emma, Umesh and Carlos for your openness in sharing your experiences for this piece. Thanks to those whose ideas and work I draw from, including Nelly, Tej, Young Friends of the Earth Scotland and Julia. Thanks to Erica for input. Thanks as always to Peter for helping me shape this edition.
Thanks to the readers and organizations who support the Debrief and to CBM Global for funding the Debrief's climate reporting.