It’s that time of the year again: when the asphalt flickers, grass turns from lush green to dry yellow, and air conditioning is put on maximum. It’s another long, hot summer in Spain, and people with disabilities are facing particular challenges yet again.
Extreme heat, worsening every year because of the climate crisis, is a disaster for many people with disabilities. I observed this while documenting how it impacted the physical and mental health of people with disabilities in Andalusia, Spain. I also found that those who are economically marginalized often face additional risks including limited green spaces nearby, which could reduce urban heat island effects, and difficulties in paying the electricity bill, for example to cover costs for assistive devices or air conditioning. While we don’t know how many people with disabilities died in Spain during the 2022 heatwaves, studies estimate that over 60,000 died across Europe due to extreme heat that year.
According to international law, people with disabilities have the right to be protected during emergencies, including extreme weather events. Yet too often they have been left to cope with the heat alone, a situation that is exacerbated by systemic marginalization in society. In Andalusia, people with disabilities felt excluded by the government, whose information on heatwaves and extreme heat did not address their specific rights and needs. As one woman with a physical disability from Seville put it: “I feel abandoned by the government.”
Climate science is very clear: because of increasing global greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat and heatwaves will continue to increase in intensity and frequency. Europe is at the forefront of this, warming twice as fast as the global average. But despite the causal link and the heavy toll Spain is paying, Spain’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion actually increased between 2021 and 2022.
Spain’s general election in July has not yet resulted in the formation of a government, but whoever forms it must take the climate crisis seriously. Extreme heat is going to increase without drastic action, so Spain should prioritize emissions reduction, while providing the necessary support to help people, including people with disabilities, adapt and prepare for extreme heat events.
** This article is part of a series marking the 10th anniversary of Human Rights Watch's Disability Rights Division. One pillar of HRW's current work is the impact of climate change on the millions of people with disabilities and older people around the world who are particularly at risk during extreme weather events and natural disasters.