All We Have is Each Other: Climate Change and Disability Justice

Finn Millwood
July 25, 2021

The Niger Delta is one of the most polluted places on Earth. Since the 1950s the multinational British-Dutch oil company Shell, alongside fellow European oil companies BP and Eni, has been pumping billions of pounds worth of oil from the region to send to power coloniser countries such as the UK. This destruction causes regular oil spills leaking 40 million litres of oil across the region every year, wrecking local ecosystems and contaminating once green and clear land and water. What was previously farmland chokes under thick blankets of oil, whilst gas flares (the burning off of excess natural gas on oil plants, releasing a huge number of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere) thicken the air and acidify the rain. 

This extractivism has a profound impact on the health of the Indigenous communities who have lived in the Niger Delta region for millenia. Those living near gas plants are constantly exposed to high levels of toxic pollutants, resulting in heavy metal poisoning which causes  health problems from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to cancer, diabetes and organ failure. Farming and fishing, which account for three quarters of the area’s 2 million people’s livelihood, have been progressively contaminated and destroyed, leading to crop failures and a vast reduction in food quality. This is exacerbated by more frequent crop-killing flooding as a result of sea levels rising as ice caps melt as global temperatures rise, heated by the very carbon and methane released from oil extracted from plants such as those in the Niger Delta. Malnutrition and infant mortality levels have skyrocketed. Life expectancy in the region has crashed from around 90 years pre-oil to only 41 years now.

In popular messaging around the impacts of climate devastation on Disabled people there is often the mistake of framing disability as static - either someone is part of the Disabled 15% of the world’s population, or they are not. In reality, whether or not we are born Disabled, everyone’s proximity to disability and the way our bodyminds are perceived by ourselves and others shifts dramatically over time, as we age, get sick, are exposed to violence, catastrophe, accident and chronic stress and as the social networks around us become more or less able to meet our needs. 

Extractivism such as that in the Niger Delta is disabling. When settler-colonialism harms the land, it also harms the people who call the land home. In a performance with the Bay Area-based Disability Justice art collective Sins Invalid, Disabled writer and performer Lateef McLeod linked the human causes of climate change (polluting and subjugating land to force it to be ‘productive’ for endless profit) to how white supremacist ableism breaks and controls Disabled bodyminds in order to force assimilation with a society structured around endless extraction for endless profit and destructive confromity, where those who are seen as ‘unproductive’ are considered burdens and therefore disposable. Through this we can see that disability and climate change are intrinsically linked - Disabled people are disproportionately impacted by climate catastrophe; carbon-releasing infrastructure and disastrous climatic events are themselves disabling, including traumatising; and the same violent mindsets that refuse to value Disabled lives and Disabled futures are the ones that see the Earth simply as a resource to be used, profited from and destroyed, at the expense of ecosystems, Indigenous communities and the global working class.

The impacts of climate catastrophe on Disabled people worldwide are myriad and closely linked to poverty and racial oppression. As highlighted by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the majority of Disabled people worldwide live in poverty, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, the most extreme impacts of climate disaster are felt most by the world’s poorest people, as access to food, liveable housing, necessary adaptive and assistive technology and the ability to both escape from disaster sites and migrate safely and quickly to less impacted areas are compromised. A 2019 IPCC report calls climate disaster a ‘poverty multiplier that makes poor people poorer and increases the poverty headcount’. In a Sins Invalid performance, Disabled performer Maria Palacios used her experience of living through Hurricane Harvey to discuss how Disabled people are left behind in disaster preparation and disaster response. Speaking about lack of access to relevant information and the financial security needed to be able to plan and stockpile, the precarity of living knowing that sudden health emergencies could flare at any time and the lack of social support experienced by many Disabled people, she said, ‘Crips can’t afford to live being prepared for the worst / although the worst will always hit us harder… / The truth is, being prepared & being disabled / means mentally prepared / to be abandoned & left to die.’ 

Disabled people are consistently at the frontlines of climate catastrophe across the world, but there is once again a core issue in how this is framed. We need to be able to discuss the specific impacts global climate and meteorological catastrophe has on Disabled people (including debilitating chronic pain flaring during weather changes, especially those related to heat, humidity, and pressure changes, and the way many medications, especially psychiatric medications, increase heat sensitivity, putting people at elevated risks of heat-related health complications, or health complications as a result of being unable to take their medication), without implying that Disabled people are ‘inherently vulnerable’, or, even worse, ‘expected losses’. This language not only strips away Disabled autonomy and histories of Disabled organising efforts, but also frames Disabled deaths as personal tragedies rather than political choices. When people’s access needs are not met, meaning they cannot flee, are trapped in prisons and institutions, are not able to understand what is happening and are left out of social support networks and disaster relief programmes, their deaths are due to the same ableist systems that work to keep Disabled people isolated and living below the poverty line. The impacts of climate catastrophe always play out along the oppressive lines of ableism, racism and classism. 

In addition, Disability Theory scholarship on time, change and healing help us all to be more realistic about the reality of a present and future shaped by climate and ecological disaster. The scholar Julia Watts Belser weaves together understandings drawn from Disability Theory, Critical Race Studies and Indigenous Studies to question how the climate movement links ‘hope’ with ‘a feeling of control over the future’ in messaging to galvanise action. Belser invites us to view a future in which things will get worse, possibly dramatically, devastatingly worse, not as a future that is necessarily lost but as a future we must learn to work with, mitigate as far as possible and then make ‘more survivable, less unjust’. She draws on Elliot Kukla’s work on the ‘present-tense life’ experience of chronic illness to discuss the experience of life as one in which often overwhelming pain, frustration and feelings of limitation are central, and then links this to Eunjung Kim’s work on the human focus on controlling and ‘curing’ nature. Belser argues that the climate movement must use this scholarship to complicate and add nuance to our understandings of the present and future, as the ecological and living conditions for the global working classes are unlikely to ‘get better’ in a linear way. We must work with the coexisting knowledge that the future will be worse and that we must make sure people are able to survive it and survive it well. 

A commitment to Climate Justice means strengthening and reaffirming the statement at the centre of Disability Justice: that no body or mind is disposable. The white supremacist mindset that says people are only valued if they are able to perform productivity for the profit of the rich is the same mindset that denies Disabled, racialised and poor people the right to live, and then to live meaningful lives, and the same mindset that scorches, drowns and chokes the Earth. In order to create climate resilient futures we must change everything, and to change everything we need everyone. This means recognising the impacts of climate disaster on Disabled people, recognising the disabling nature of extreme climatic events and the extractivism that causes them, and centering the profound skills, knowledge and teaching of Disabled people and communities across the globe.

We must move in Crip time, sick time, Mad time, towards a climate-shaped future in which all people are able to live free, meaningful and supported lives. Will you move with us too?

Cover image: Sins Invalid - Photo credit: Richard Downing