Photo credit: GDI Hub.
Blog post written by Gordon Rattray, International Cooperation Officer.
The Conference is over, the Glasgow agreement has been agreed, and headlines are all about how serious (or not) the world’s most powerful governments are about keeping ‘1.5 alive’. In other words, are we going to limit global warming enough to avoid catastrophic weather events?
But if we can put that to one side for a minute (I will come back to it), what was most striking about this conference to me was how far behind the times the climate discussion is regarding human rights, and especially, disability rights.
It was impossible to ignore the optimism and excitement that surrounded the mass melee of more than 30,000 people that descended on Glasgow during the two weeks. Every day there were demonstrations and exhibitions on the streets around the event, ranging from troops of drummers, dancers and posters and murals drawn by schoolchildren. There is a vibe of truth and positivity. Thankfully, mainstream media seems to have finally reached the critical mass point where climate change denial and flat earth theory live together.
But Glasgow was not a carnival. The lines of fake corpses one morning at the entrance gates made (almost literally) no bones about the fact that for many countries this is already a matter of life and death.
No one can have missed the fact that the Israeli minister for energy was excluded from discussions, simply because she uses a wheelchair. This was explained by the organisers as a ‘misunderstanding’. But it wasn’t. It was the most visible example possible of how fundamental human rights, and in particular disability rights, are simply not yet part of this conversation.
Of course inclusion is not only about wheelchair access. As far I’m aware, the main events at COP 26 had no sign interpreters, no live captioning and no easy-to-read materials. These are basic essentials to ensure informed and participatory debate, and for them to be omitted is not only discriminatory but embarrassingly old-fashioned.
At first glance the online platform looked impressive, but was complicated, clunky and confusing. I don’t know in how far it was truly accessible but it certainly wasn’t easy to use. For anyone attending the conference it was quicker to march the kilometres of crowded corridors, asking the kindly staff where to go, than to search online for guidance.
All of these failures impede people with disabilities – who already happen to be among those most impacted by climate change – but it is also crucial for the organisers to understand that doing things in accessible ways benefit many more people.
Consider for example a crowded noisy auditorium where sound quality is not perfect, how useful live captioning can be. This is particularly relevant if the speech you are trying to listen to is not in your native language. Think how much more comfortable meeting rooms and access routes are for everyone if they are accessible to wheelchairs (to say nothing of being more COVID safe).
Legal and scientific documentation, often full of brain-blocking jargon, is easier to understand if there is a plain language or an easy to read version available. Even if we think only about financial loss and gain, which is the main driver in much of this debate, disability inclusion is an investment, not a cost.
This blunt practical exclusion from the beginning means that people from the most impacted communities are rarely seen at the top table, and are still only given cursory mention in the preamble of the outcome documents themselves.
These climate action plans are not based on the ‘leave no one behind’ philosophy that drives the Sustainable Development Goals, or the ‘all of society’ approach that underpins the Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The ongoing battle of dollars and difficult decisions appear to have forgotten the humanitarian principles.
These three fields – international cooperation, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action – are interconnected. Effective climate action depends upon them all. In other words, we will not achieve climate justice without applying their principles and the many guidelines for disability inclusion that already exist.
So what does this mean in practice?
Let us be positive. At previous COPs there have already been voices highlighting the need for disability inclusion. This time around, there were three official side events focusing on this topic, where I heard many strong messages and reasons for optimism:
- Katherine Lofts, from McGill University, framed climate action in the context of the CRPD, and went on to give an overview of research on disability inclusion in national adaptation and mitigation policies.
- José Vera from International Disability Alliance (IDA) reminded us clearly that persons with disabilities must be meaningfully consulted at all levels and all steps of the way.
- Susie Fitton, from Inclusion Scotland, announced the launch of their report It’s Our Planet Too: Climate Change, Disabled People and Climate Action in Scotland. She finished her excellent presentation by summarising her priorities, including calling for the UNFCCC to recognise a disability constituency, and for other civil society organisations working on climate issues to consider eco-ableism and ensure accessibility in their work.
- During another event hosted by CBM UK, Dr Julian Eaton reminded us that people with disabilities have enormous capacity to change things for all of us, not only for their own communities.
- Iain McKinnon of GDI hub, in an event where I also had the privilege to speak, pointed out the links between Inclusive Design and the Sustainable Development Goals, and in his summary emphasised that COP 27 commitments must be explicitly disability inclusive.
So where does all of this take us?
There is a growing number of organisations, including organisations of people with disabilities, who have the capacity to participate. Many have unique skills, knowledge and experience that will positively influence climate action. Several of these organisations have official Observer Status within the UNFCCC mechanism and others are in the process of applying for this.
We need to strengthen this collaboration and ensure that future COPs are fully accessible with a strong, informed, visible and loud disability contingent present, especially representing the ‘global South’.
There must be an official disability constituency, led by persons with disabilities, as part of the UNFCCC mechanism. As well as bringing this strong and united voice to the heart of the discussion, this constituency will collaborate with other civil society constituencies, amplifying our common call for a human right-based approach to climate action. It is important to recognise that the indigenous community have already been voicing the rights and requirements of persons with disabilities, and we must reciprocate these efforts.
Disability must not be on the fringes. Full inclusion and accessibility must be integral parts of all high-level decision-making, allowing meaningful participation and resulting in explicit reference to the requirements of people with disabilities in the commitments that are made.
Climate change and inappropriate climate action impacts all of the most marginalised groups disproportionally. A just transition means one that listens to and reaches everyone.
If the global community – in particular, governments of the wealthiest countries – are indeed serious about keeping 1.5 alive, the narrative has to change. There must be no more bad COP. Everybody has to be heard.
EDF would like to thank the International Disability Alliance and CBM Global for the support to participate in COP26.