Energy & Environment

COP26 incident shines light on impact of climate change on disabled

Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

An Israeli cabinet minister’s inability to access the COP26 climate summit in her wheelchair has fueled criticism that the conference is part of the problem when it comes to many of the inequalities it was meant to address.

Karine Elharrar, Israel’s energy minister, uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy and was unable to access an entrance at the summit Monday.

“It’s sad that the United Nations, which promotes accessibility for people with disabilities, in 2021 doesn’t worry about accessibility at its own events,” Elharrar tweeted.


While Elharrar was able to attend the conference on Tuesday, and has accepted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apology, the incident illustrated a recurring concern at the summit: that even as the conference seeks to address the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities, it risks boxing out those very people.

Lisa Dale, a faculty affiliate with Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, said the episode “eerily mimics” the implication of climate disasters for disabled people.

In those cases, she told The Hill, “wealthier able-bodied households are more likely to evacuate, find safety, and bounce back afterward. Poorer or disabled individuals will be hit much harder by the same weather event.”

“This is the very definition of vulnerability, a key component of how we understand risk,” she added.

“It’s of course unfortunate that [Elharrar] was left out … and it’s right that attention’s being paid to it, but what’s really more of an issue is the way people with disabilities have been left out of the climate change agenda and dialogue,” said Michael Stein, executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.

“Although we’re all going to suffer, and do suffer, from climate change, right now and in the future, the mortality rate for people with disabilities from natural disasters is as high as four times that of non-disabled persons,” he added.

Adding to the disparity, Stein added, a majority of disabled people live in the developing world and contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions than the average person.

A 2020 report by the U.N. Human Rights Council noted that disabled people disproportionately experience poverty and are vulnerable in emergency situations, both of which make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They are also less free to migrate when displaced by warming temperatures or catastrophic weather events, and if they are able to overcome that challenge, they are more likely to rely on the kind of support network their new homes may lack.

COP26 leaders directly addressed the accessibility issues with reporters on Wednesday, with President Alok Sharma saying “we regret any logistical issues.”

Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, meanwhile, said that “probably what happened is the person did not go to the right entrance, but I don’t want to take responsibility from us away” in ensuring accessibility.

“That aspect has really been one that we have taken care of … we really took special care in that,” she added.

British Environment Secretary George Eustice made similar comments to BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, calling the incident “deeply regrettable” but saying other entrances did not have the same accessibility problems. “Action should have been taken to sort that out,” he said.

When reached for comment, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., referred The Hill to a statement by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who said “it is impossible to safeguard our future and address the climate crisis, without first and foremost caring for people, including ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities.”

Stein told The Hill that meaningful corrections would require thinking about not just individual failures of accessibility, but the extent to which disability is a factor in policymaking.

“The fact that no one was thinking about people with disabilities and accessibility and inclusion [in COP26 logistics] tells us just what we need to know: it’s systemic exclusion,” Stein said. “We need to think about how to include disabled people as far as getting training and also giving feedback to NGOs … we need to increase disability cultural competency, so that when you look around the room and there’s no one with a disability and there’s nothing on the agenda about disability, a lightbulb goes on.”

Yolanda Muñoz, an independent disability rights researcher, called the incident “a very common episode in the life of a wheelchair user.”

“This is the first time that disability [has become] a topic in a COP, and it is our hope that everyone will understand that ableism must be dismantled first to be coherent with our ideals of social justice,” Muñoz told The Hill. “Climate change is a problem that concerns every person in this world, and the solutions cannot be abled-centric.”

Throughout the conference, communities and countries most vulnerable to climate change have called on wealthier nations to live up to their rhetoric on climate equity. On Wednesday, members of the U.N.’s Least Developed Countries cohort called on major economies to step up their contributions, noting that one in 10 people in the cohort’s countries are directly affected by climate change even though they are collectively responsible for 1 percent of emissions.

In September, a coalition of climate advocacy groups called for the summit to be postponed amid a spike in coronavirus cases, saying unequal vaccine access was affecting the very people most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

Tags Boris Johnson Climate change COP26 Disabled rights

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