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Can COP27 contribute to disability-inclusive climate justice?

Activists from every corner of the globe are struggling against barriers to participating in COP27 . But collaboration and solidarity are ensuring that disability justice is increasingly present at the United Nations’ yearly climate conference.

This piece was first published 7 November on the Disability Debrief newsletter. It has been lightly edited to include update accessibility information on COP27. 

During the COP27 climate talks, world leaders are being held to account on their repeated failure to act at the speed and scale that keeping warming below 1.5°C requires.

There are serious challenges for access and participation at COP27. Historically disabled people have been left out of these negotiations and this COP in Egypt sees exclusion of wider civil society too.

But disabled people are fighting to get space in the negotiations, and to create the connections that contribute to long-term struggles for disability-inclusive climate justice.

Human rights not welcome here

The challenges that disabled people face to participate in COP27 are in the context of existential challenges for civil society as a whole. Previous COPs have seen powerful manifestations galvanising the energy of the conference, but this one takes place in Egypt.

Egypt’s repressive approach to freedom of expression and long record of human rights abuses “makes a mockery” of climate justice. For COP itself, the Egyptian government has created obstacles to attendance, shut Egyptian NGOs out of negotiations, and, in the week before COP, detained hundreds in a security crackdown, including an activist from India walking to Sharm el Sheikh.

Please join us at the Debrief in calling to #FreeAlaa. Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist, who is at risk of dying in jail while COP is in session. Alaa is one of the vital thinkers of the Arab Spring, and if you don’t know his work you can start with his letter written from jail in 2017 “Unlike me, you have not been defeated yet” and carry on with his book of the same name.

At the same time, it is critical that African nations, who are among the countries worst impacted by climate breakdown yet the least responsible for it, are prominent in climate negotiations. Solidarity with African countries goes beyond measures for adaptation and includes initiatives like Don’t Gas Africa to ensure the continent does not get locked into further climate-polluting fossil fuel production. Countries are also deciding on climate financing pledges which will have ramifications for climate transitions in the coming decades. Solidarity has to be based on human rights.

“Discouraging and frustrating” barriers to participation

This year, the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN) and a Nepalese representative of the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund are travelling to COP27 together. But, NIDWAN president Pratima Gurung tells me, it has been “really discouraging and frustrating” wrestling with countless logistical and accessibility barriers to participating.

 Both NIDWAN and the Pacific Disability Forum would have sent more representatives if there was better access to funding and accreditation processes, exemplifying how Global South voices most needed at COP face higher hurdles to inclusion.

Gurung explained that the funding and accreditation infrastructure are not set up in a way that upholds disability rights. Her personal assistant needed their own accreditation separate from Gurung’s and obtaining this was difficult. Similarly, the organisation financially supporting Gurung’s participation was unable to cover her assistant’s travel costs. Managing to book travel on the same flight, essential for the group so they could support each other, and to book rooms in the same hotel, was very challenging. Difficulty obtaining information about the hotel’s accessibility led to unnecessary confusion and stress.

Elham Youssefian, of the International Disability Alliance (IDA), is one of three delegates the global disability umbrella organisation is funding to attend COP this year. She echoed similar challenges when sourcing funding to cover their travel and hotel costs.

As for the accessibility of COP itself, Disability Debrief understands that the Egyptian hosts have taken some proactive steps, including making disability help desks available in the Blue and Green zones, volunteers who have received disability awareness training are on hand for disabled people requiring assistance, some wheelchairs are available for use, and they indicated Arabic sign language interpreting would be available (additional languages are a UN responsibility).

The real test of accessibility is hearing about the experiences of disabled people on the ground as the conference progresses

At least one wheelchair user has struggled to access parts of the venue. Other disabled attendees noted appreciation for a separate queue in place for people with disabilities and chronic pain while pointing out sign language interpreters have not been present at all events. 

Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow set a worrying precedent on accessibility. It saw multiple access failures ranging from lack of physical access, to no captions and sign language interpreting of world leaders’ speeches. In the most high-profile instance, Israel’s Energy Minister, a wheelchair user, was initially denied access to the venue.

Collaborating to profile disability rights

Disability advocates attending COP27 say cross-movement collaboration and solidarity are key to progressing disability inclusion. COP26 featured a few collaborative side events aiming to raise the profile of disability- and mental health-inclusive climate action and COP27 has on these. There have in recent years been informal mechanisms to coordinate disability inputs from interested organisations and individuals, and plans are underway to formalise coordination by creating a disability constituency.

Pacific Disability Forum (PDF) CEO Setareki Macanawai is attending COP for the first time this year and emphasises the need for mainstreaming disability within financing of climate adaptation. For instance, funding for village relocation projects should plan for disability access and inclusion from the start so that people with disabilities don't lose access to things like washing facilities or community halls

PDF will be sharing their recent research highlighting the impacts of climate change for disabled people in the Pacific Island states of Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. The accounts from people with disabilities and disability organisations detail how unpredictable and extreme weather patterns are putting the livelihoods, health, food security and access to water of people with disabilities at severe risk.

PDF is joining Pacific calls to keep global warming to “1.5 to stay alive” and also for migration with dignity, which is threatened for people with disabilities who face discriminatory migration barriers in neighbouring countries New Zealand and Australia. PDF wants these sorts of disproportionate impacts of climate breakdown for people with disabilities to be visible in loss and damage discussions too, which are on the agenda for this COP. Loss and damage covers economic impacts like loss of income or housing, but also extends to things like loss of access to culture, ancestral land, health, mobility, and loss of life.

Meanwhile, Gurung says NIDWAN’s focus during the negotiations is on building relationships and collaboration not just with disability organisations but also with the women and gender constituency, the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, and with funders. NIDWAN are holding side events with civil society and the WHO to highlight the impacts of climate change on indigenous women with disabilities in Nepal, which include being displaced by extractive industries from their ancestral land, forest, and  the agriculture practices which have sustained their communities for generations.

Another advocacy priority, highlighted by Youssefian from International Disability Alliance, is recognition of people with disabilities within capacity building commitments, an area referred to as Action for climate empowerment.

Learning from gender inclusion

In understanding what kind of influence COP advocacy could catalyse in the disability space, looking at the inclusion of gender within climate policies and commitments could offer clues. 

In 2009, a Women and Gender Constituency was formed, and gender advocacy gained visibility over the subsequent years. By 2019, a strengthened 5-year Gender Action Plan and an associated work programme were adopted at COP25 in Madrid. The plan encourages States to build knowledge and action on the relationships between gender and climate, through capacity building, gender-inclusive delegations, mainstreaming gender across climate policies and financing, and reporting requirements.

Despite the non-binding status of the plan, climate and human rights researcher Sébastien Jodoin from McGill University says its existence and the subsequently higher profile of gender in climate talks in recent years has led to tangible influence. Gender is frequently visible within domestic climate policies now, as well as in multilateral funding commitments, neither of which were the case a decade ago. Some countries are additionally developing their own national climate change gender action plans. That said, progress isn’t linear here either. The wealthiest countries still lag far behind, and the understanding of gender is limited in that it doesn’t recognise the additional marginalisation of non-cisgendered people.

Organisations of persons with disabilities are learning as they go as well. Youssefian pointed out that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process is not readily comparable to other UN human rights treaty processes like the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UNFCCC is not rights-based by default, and not designed to be democratic. The private sector is deeply involved, hundreds of billions in financing are being argued over, and the influence of civil society in such complex processes is at best hard-won, and extremely limited for those who are the most marginalised.

The long-term struggle for climate justice

Climate justice advocacy from Africa and the Middle East needs to be supported well-beyond COP’s two week window. Disabled Egyptian activist, consultant and researcher Mostafa Attia underscores the necessity of climate-related capacity-building throughout the Arab region. Focus groups he facilitated have shown that disabled people, and particularly hard of hearing and deaf people who have limited access to broadcast media, are frequently missing out on climate coverage in the news. Disabled people’s education and literacy levels are also disproportionately lower, compounding the barriers to awareness.

Even when organisations of persons with disabilities do advocate for their rights to be upheld in climate policy, Attia says that their demands are frequently treated as optional: "the cherry on top of the cake rather than part of the cake itself".

Attia, who has recently started a role as disability inclusion consultant for the Arab region UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, is working on the mainstreaming of disability in DRR programmes as well as prioritising disabled people’s demands within national climate policies and strategies.

In the southern African country of Lesotho, the umbrella organisation of persons with disabilities is similarly focusing on awareness-raising, both among disability organisations and policy-makers in Lesotho. As their executive director Nkhasi Sefuthi explains in a recent episode of the podcast Enabling Commons, climate justice was not a priority area for organisations of persons with disabilities in Lesotho till very recently. Bespoke funding is enabling them to prioritise this work now and to also share their learnings with disability organisations in the southern region of Africa.

The Kenyan Chemichemi Foundation, which focuses on climate-related capacity building for marginalised groups, has also called for COP27 to be a reset on climate justice for people with disabilities. As their executive director Nancy Marangu points out, it’s been 12 years since the Cancun agreements from the COP16 conference in Mexico identified people with disabilities among the groups whose human rights are disproportionately impacted by climate change, albeit via the language of vulnerability. Despite this, more substantive recognition in COP outcomes, and indeed in domestic climate policy, is still lacking.

COPs might get the lion’s share of the media attention, and disability engagement there is valuable, but climate justice is a long-term, day-to-day, people-powered struggle. In the words of autistic climate activist Greta Thunberg, COPs “are not really meant to change the whole system”, but instead encourage gradual progress.

The struggles to embed disability leadership into climate movements are ongoing. The need for research and advocacy to ensure disabled people are not tokenised or excluded within national climate policy has to continue. Funding for disability-led capacity building to empower disabled people to contend with what’s changing in their local community thanks to both climate impacts and to adaptation initiatives is more necessary than ever.

As COP27 concludes, let’s hope that the people with disabilities who’ve fought so hard to be there on the ground have made a lasting impression raising the profile of disability leadership in climate justice on the world stage, and that these efforts become a catalyst for progress in the months and years to come.

This piece is republished with permission from the Disability Debrief newsletter produced by Peter Torres Fremlin and was reported with support from CBM Global. Support Disability Debrief by subscribing to the newsletter.

About the author

Áine Kelly-Costello is a disabled story-teller, consultant and campaigner, passionate about connecting disability and climate justice.

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