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Why a Global Disability Caucus Will Help in the Fight for Disability Inclusive Climate Justice 

Ipul Powaseu addressing the UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ipul Powaseu and the Disability Rights Fund.
October 25, 2021

Ellen Spannagel (she/her) is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with Human Rights Watch. She is a second year BCL/JD student at McGill’s Faculty of Law and holds a Bachelor of Journalism and Humanities from Carleton University. She is passionate about climate justice that is disability-inclusive and centers gender, sexual, and romantic minorities and how this interacts with legal frameworks. She is also passionate about storytelling and the ways in which knowledge is built, translated, and shared across regions and communities. Ellen grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and enjoys spending her free time outdoors.

People with disabilities have been excluded at all levels from organizing and decision-making structures about climate justice and sustainability.

In an activism context, street protests for climate action have not been accessible for people with disabilities, who are often unable to participate. 

The overreliance on small-scale environmental strategies, such as straw bans, often comes at the expense of people with disabilities, who may need to rely on straws as an aid for a highly necessary daily task; this is just one example of environmentally-oriented policies that fail to consider the existence of those with disabilities, a form of eco-ableism. Other examples include investing only in forms of active transportation as a method of reducing reliance on cars, without recognizing that there are a range of disabilities that render active transportation, such as cycling, inaccessible. Eco-ableism also extends into the discourse around environmental policies, which often wholly neglect the lived experience of those with disabilities. 

This ableism exists at the highest levels of global governance.

As Carlos Kaiser, the director of NGO Inclusiva, a disability advocacy organization in Chile and a disaster risk reduction expert, has noted in an interview, “I remember attending very high level meetings entering by the kitchen. That’s not the red carpet.”  He continues, “So the message is ‘you are not equal, or we don’t want you here’.”

Similarly, Ipul Powaseu, an advisor for the Papua New Guinea Assembly of Disabled Persons,  has stated  that when she spoke at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016 (COP22, her speech can be accessed here) she “realized that the voices of people with disabilities were not really an agenda on the table.”

But people with disabilities and their organizations are steadfast in advocating for their inclusion, and have recently secured an important victory.

At the 14th session of the Conference of States Parties (COSP) to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) presidency publicly committed to supporting the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) secretariat to create a disability caucus. A caucus is a coalition of voices, often with lived experience in favour of certain policy action; in this case, it would be action on to support those with disabilities. 

A caucus is not the same thing as a constituency, which receives additional opportunities to speak in the plenary and nominate representatives to intercessional workshops. There are 9 constituencies, which include a Women and Gender constituency and a Youth NGOs constituency, for example. 

It is not clear why the UNFCCC secretariat did not create a disability constituency, as organizations such as the International Disability Alliance have advocated for. 

Although a caucus does not have the same privileges as constituencies, it can help create visibility for a group that has been frequently sidelined from global climate change decision-making.  This includes the ability to make submissions or give presentations as a group, for example.

The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from October 31st to November 12th 2021, where it remains to be seen how the interests and leadership of people with disabilities worldwide will be prioritized. 

As Hannah Dines, a Rio 2016 Paralympian and physiologist  has written, “the Paris agreement makes clear its obligation to disability and human rights, but will people with disabilities actually be involved in the discussion?”

Carlos Kaiser further adds “why can’t women with disabilities be more present? Why can’t non-binary people with disabilities be present?”

While inclusion at the global level is important, we also need to be critical about how local governments are including people with disabilities and their organizations in not just climate planning, but in other relevant infrastructure areas too.

For example, the city of Montreal proposed a mileage tax for drivers, without considering how this would disproportionately impact people with disabilities who rely on their vehicles for transportation. 

As Yolanda Muñoz, a disability and climate expert has stated, “what if you cannot walk more than 100 meters? What if you cannot use public transportation? We have to advocate for accessible public transportation as part of an inclusive agenda of environmental justice.” 

This raises the issue of meaningful inclusion, where effective disability inclusion in every climate related policy is not just an afterthought, but is robust, intersectional, and accounts for the fact that people with disabilities are not a homogenous entity. 

This applies to the smallest of details: are meetings accessible? Is information accessible, online or otherwise? Are people with intellectual disabilities included? 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes “I’ve noticed tons of abled activists will happily add “ableism” to the list of stuff they’re against (you know, like that big sign in front of the club in my town that says “No racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism”) or throw around the word “disability justice” in the list of “justices” in their manifesto. But then nothing else changes: all their organizing is still run the exact same inaccessible way, with the ten-mile-long marches, workshops that urge people to “get out of your seats and move!” and lack of inclusion of any disabled issues or organizing strategies.”

While this is written in the context of activism, it is relevant for any institution or organization purporting to advance climate action that is disability inclusive. 

We should be critical of global institutions like the United Nations, and how they are advancing disability inclusive climate justice,  but we also have to reckon with the realities in our own communities. 

Everyday, disability organizations are advocating for policies that enhance climate justice and mitigate climate impacts. Be it at the United Nations, or city hall, it is this leadership that needs to be centered. 

For resources on promoting disability inclusive climate action, check-out the guide to promoting disability-inclusive climate change created by the Secretariat of the Global action on Disability (GLAD) Network. To learn more about work being done in Canada, check out the work of the Disability Inclusive Climate Action Research Program.