Stephen McMurray argues that the climate movement needs to be a movement rooted in social justice, not one that falls into the trap of individualism and promoting policies which increase exclusion.
With the COP conference taking place in Glasgow in Autumn 2021, there has been renewed focus on tackling climate change, particularly given the severe fires and floods which have affected many parts of the world. There are however, concerns that policies which are aimed at reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, may have a negative impact on the lives of people with disabilities.
Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities in favour of non-disabled people. Eco ableism is defined as a failure by environmental activists to recognise that many of the climate actions they are promoting make life harder for people with disabilities.
Action to tackle climate change requires a wide range of policies and actions to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. These include changing the way we travel and the way we generate and use energy. However, there is a danger that such policies could further marginalise people with disabilities. This has been illustrated in Edinburgh, which introduced ‘Spaces for People’ in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bollards were introduced to separate cyclists from vehicles and pavements widened.
Whilst improving cycling and walking routes to encourage people to cycle and walk more is vital in reducing transport emissions, there is evidence that they have made it harder for people with disabilities getting around. Restricting parking with bollards and introducing double yellow lines has made it much harder for people with disabilities who rely on motorised vehicles to get shopping and socialise.
RNIB Scotland and the Edinburgh Access Panel have expressed serious concern over the introduction of floating bus stops, as it means that people with disabilities will have to cross cycle lanes to get on and off buses. This is particularly worrying for people with visual impairments.
Eco ableism is linked into the neoliberal agenda of tackling climate change by individualism. That individual actions can influence the market and effectively tackle climate change. This ignores the reality that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Individualism can also be tied into victim blaming. Many people with disabilities are limited in the individual actions they can take.
There remain difficulties, for example in using public transport. Only 80 out of 270 London Underground stations feature some form of step-free access. Furthermore, there is the issue of planning ahead to organise the wheelchair ramp and the worry that a member of staff won’t turn up on either end of the journey[ii].
With buses as well, wheelchair spaces are often taken by buggies, leading to tensions and arguments. This is despite a court ruling that drivers should ask passengers to make way for wheelchairs. This can put wheelchair users off public transport and more reliant on private vehicles.
Much of the advice given to individuals to reduce their energy use is in the form of turning down the heating and watching what we eat. However, many people with disabilities struggle to keep warm due to limited mobility and may require special diets, therefore reducing their choices. A home insulation programme is desperately needed to reduce energy use and bills. People with limited mobility should be prioritised.
Even when it comes to electric cars, people with disabilities face challenges. Research found that there was concern in relation to; lifting the charge cable from the boot, manoeuvring the cable to the charge point, space or trip hazards around the car and charger, charging points not designed for wheelchair users and lack of public charging points.
The challenge therefore, is to design the charging of electric cars to be accessible as possible. There is a definite need to greatly increase the need of charging points. Ideally, these should include disabled parking bays in the street, hospitals, GPs, supermarkets, and shopping centres.
The climate movement needs to be a movement rooted in social justice, not one that falls into the trap of individualism and promoting policies which increase exclusion. Just as we should strive for a just transition for workers and communities, we should strive for policies that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also increase social justice and inclusion.