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People with Disabilities Needed in Fight Against Climate Change

UN Releases First Report on Disability Rights in the Context of Climate Action

Volunteers tend to a man in a wheelchair and his partner, after they were rescued during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. © 2019 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

People with disabilities are at increased risk of the adverse impacts of climate change – including threats to their health, food security, water, sanitation, and livelihoods – the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a recent report. The report, the result of a historic resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council last July, examines the impacts of climate change on the rights of people with disabilities and makes recommendations about states’ human rights obligations in the context of climate action.   

People with disabilities make up an estimated 15 percent of the global population. Due to discrimination, marginalization, and certain social and economic factors, people with disabilities may experience the effects of climate change differently and more intensely than others.

Take, for example, climate displacement. Climate change exacerbates extreme weather events, which is one of the factors driving increased migration in recent years. Because the ability to migrate often depends on resources and mobility, marginalized populations – such as people with disabilities – might be unable to travel and so forced to remain in degraded environments without housing, employment, support networks, or health care services.

People with disabilities also experience poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. This puts people with disabilities at heightened risk, as the world’s poorest people continue to experience the most severe impacts of climate change through lost income, displacement, hunger, and adverse impacts on health.

Because the effects of climate change exacerbate inequality and risk for people with disabilities, it is critical this group be included in climate action. The new report calls on states to uphold the rights of people with disabilities when developing climate policies and to secure their meaningful, informed, and effective participation during the process.

One important step is to ensure that information about climate risks, plans, and policies are made accessible to everyone – see how the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) led by example by publishing its new report in an easy-to-read format.

As the US makes progress in recognizing the critical role of people with disabilities in the climate fight, states should follow suit by including the experiences and perspectives of people with different types of disabilities when taking action to address climate change.

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