Autistic Future
July 7th, 2019

Climate Change and Disability

It’s hard to think long-term when short-term sur­vival does­n’t seem guar­an­teed, when imme­di­ate con­cerns are vast, press­ing, exis­ten­tial, maybe insur­mount­able. It’s hard to get long-term needs and inter­ests addressed when one’s auton­o­my is lim­it­ed even in the short-term, even in the small­est deci­sions. Most Autis­tics in the U.S. and around the world are famil­iar with the kind of think­ing peo­ple do in des­per­ate places. Most of us have been there. It’s the only life too many of us know. Cou­ple that with ongo­ing, pub­lic ableism among envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates, and it isn’t hard to see why the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty’s engage­ment with cli­mate change has been lim­it­ed.* We must change that to the great­est extent we can under the lim­i­ta­tions of our cir­cum­stances. Our sur­vival and well-being, and that of oth­er peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties around the world, depends on it.

The strong sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus is that cli­mate change is real. Worse, it isn’t a prob­lem we can expect to face in the future. It’s a cur­rent prob­lem expect­ed to get worse in the future. Experts are rec­om­mend­ing some steps indi­vid­u­als can take to reduce their con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate change, but most say that indi­vid­ual action isn’t enough. It will take sys­temic efforts by gov­ern­ments and large com­pa­nies to solve the prob­lem. To that end, Autis­tics and the wider dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty must become more assertive about cli­mate change. For us, even more than for oth­ers, cli­mate change is an exis­ten­tial threat. This is a mat­ter of life and death.

Pre­dic­tions about the con­se­quences of cli­mate change for human­i­ty are get­ting increas­ing­ly dire. They include things like more unsta­ble food sup­plies, social unrest and oth­er threats to the rule of law, more and worse nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, increased pover­ty, and more suf­fer­ing and lack of access to basic neces­si­ties among the world’s poor. If those things come to pass, dis­abled peo­ple will bear the brunt of them. We will suf­fer and die, because we are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly the poor­est peo­ple in our soci­eties, where sta­ple foods and potable water get scarcer. We will suf­fer and die in soci­eties where cli­mate changed dri­ves scarci­ty and result­ing unrest, mak­ing per­son­al care assis­tance, dis­abil­i­ty ben­e­fits, med­ical care, elec­tric­i­ty, and effec­tive legal sys­tems that pro­tect our rights less reli­ably avail­able. We will suf­fer and die where nat­ur­al dis­as­ters become worse and more fre­quent in larg­er num­bers than our nondis­abled peers because we always do. Where areas become unin­hab­it­able, dis­abled peo­ple, more than oth­ers, will be left behind.

The pre­dic­tions all amount to a more unsta­ble world. Indi­vid­ual mileage will vary, but dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties on the whole thrive on sta­bil­i­ty. Too many of us are strug­gling, even in rich coun­tries with statu­to­ry pro­tec­tions for our rights, in a world as peace­ful and pros­per­ous as it’s ever been in human his­to­ry. We can’t afford a world as harsh as the one fore­cast in even mid­dle-of-the-road cli­mate change pre­dic­tions. The futures imag­ined in dis­cus­sions of the worst case sce­nar­ios are sim­ply not sur­viv­able for most of us. Some of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, peo­ple liv­ing in poor coun­tries and those who are also elder­ly, iso­lat­ed, or poor in the U.S., are already suf­fer­ing from the effects of cli­mate change. If we aren’t hear­ing from peo­ple who are already feel­ing its effects, it’s because they are so mar­gin­al­ized that they may not even be con­nect­ed to or aware of dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty. If we don’t acknowl­edge that the changes we’re see­ing will cause prob­lems for more and more of us in the years to come, we’re lying to ourselves.

What we can do to address this press­ing issue is lim­it­ed by our cir­cum­stances. Pover­ty and func­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions will make some per­son­al actions and lifestyle changes impos­si­ble for some dis­abled peo­ple. It won’t be easy for Autis­tics and oth­er dis­abled peo­ple to devote some of our own and our com­mu­ni­ties’ finite resources to address­ing this issue. It’s going to be painful. That much is cer­tain. That said, it’s time to start ask­ing our­selves what we, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, can do to address a grow­ing cri­sis. Tak­ing this issue on will be cost­ly, but ignor­ing it is con­sign­ing many peo­ple like our­selves, some alive today, some to be born in the years and decades to come, to mis­ery. That is not an accept­able outcome.

Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in Amer­i­ca are increas­ing­ly well-orga­nized. In recent years, we’ve had a good track record of fac­ing down exis­ten­tial threats and defeat­ing them. We are used to being cre­ative and resource­ful. We are prac­ticed at fight­ing for our lives. Autis­tics are par­tic­u­lar­ly vocif­er­ous advo­cates when con­front­ed with an exter­nal threat. Usu­al­ly, noth­ing less than an exis­ten­tial threat is enough to get our var­i­ous fac­tions to work togeth­er. Now, those are the stakes. It’s easy to lose sight of cli­mate change among the many issues we have to address. There are so many mat­ters of life and death, and some feel more con­crete and immi­nent. How­ev­er, none will affect as many of us as cli­mate change if it’s left unchecked. The dis­as­ter may be unfold­ing slow­ly, but it is already in progress. This isn’t tomor­row’s dan­ger. It’s today’s. As stew­ards of our com­mu­ni­ty’s present and future, we must try to find ways peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties can help avoid the worst case sce­nar­ios for cli­mate change. We must take deci­sive action to pro­tect our own and pre­serve our place in the human com­mu­ni­ty for gen­er­a­tions to come.

*Gre­ta Thun­berg may be a pio­neer­ing excep­tion, but the extent of her engage­ment with Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty is unclear.