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.