Last June, two districts in Bangladesh received record-breaking rainfall, a historic deluge that affected more than 7.2 million people, according to an estimate by the United Nations. When the U.N. stepped in to assist with relief efforts, it listed persons with disabilities among the groups first in line for assistance. Yet advocates at Harvard Law School report that a disability humanitarian relief effort they developed in collaboration with local disability rights advocates identified many aid recipients with disabilities that had been left out of other humanitarian efforts. Notably, thousands of people with disabilities likely failed to receive help promptly, in part because the country’s authorities had not adequately identified those with different needs before disaster struck.

This tragic story is doomed to be repeated if governments planning for the effects of climate change do not center persons with disabilities in their efforts, says Michael Ashley Stein ’88, a visiting professor of law at Harvard, and co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.

Not only do people with disabilities around the world bear more of the burdens of climate change for socioeconomic reasons, says Stein, but they are also more vulnerable in the immediate and long-term aftermath of a sudden catastrophe, such as a flood or wildfire.

“For example, consider a situation that requires evacuation,” says Stein. “What happens when the evacuation or refugee center is not accessible, or there is no accessible transportation? What happens to those left behind that may have wished to migrate but cannot? These issues need to be studied.”

In a recent article for Nature, Stein and coauthors Penelope J.S. Stein, Nora Groce, and Maria Kett call on scientists to include the diverse needs of persons with disabilities when thinking about adaptations and responses to a changing climate. Stein spoke with Harvard Law Today about why he and his coauthors targeted the scientific community for their appeal, the role lawyers will play, and why people with disabilities must be part of the conversation.


Harvard Law Today: What are some of the major impacts from climate change faced by those with disabilities?

Michael Ashley Stein: Persons with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die or be injured in climate emergencies including heatwaves, hurricanes, and floods. Moreover, people with disabilities in disasters face inaccessible transportation and emergency shelters, social isolation, and institutionalization. The Census Bureau, in a Household Pulse Survey, found that 59% of deaf evacuees do not return home. Instead, people with disabilities face unnecessary institutionalization.

Climate change amplifies the marginalization experienced by persons with disabilities negatively affecting health, reducing access to healthcare services, food, water, and accessible infrastructure. People with psychosocial disabilities have triple the rate of mortality in heatwaves.

Climate mitigation and adaptation approaches developed without consultation with organizations of persons with disabilities create additional barriers. For example, added bicycles lanes may cause bus stops to become wheelchair inaccessible.

HLT: Why was it important to publish this note in a scientific journal, as opposed to, say, a legal one?

Stein: Our goal in writing this Comment is to catalyze research and innovation of climate solutions at the intersection of disability and climate change. Significant research gaps exist as to how persons with disabilities are impacted by climate change and the interventions which will be most effective in promoting their human rights. People with disabilities are under-researched in the fields of science, medicine, law, and policy. The social transformation required for disability climate justice requires research, innovation, and collaboration across all these fields with organizations of persons with disabilities.

In September 2022, the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and University College London’s International Disability Research Centre held a “Disability Climate Justice” workshop and formed the Global Disability Climate Justice working group. This work was supported by the Weatherhead Center and by University College London’s Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative. We are publishing pieces related to disability climate justice for diverse audiences.

HLT: Your paper offers several actions the scientific community can take to begin addressing the problem. In your view, what is the most critical first step to addressing this gap in climate resilience efforts?

Stein: Globally, persons with disabilities are disparately impacted by climate change, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the window for global climate action is “rapidly closing.” Consequently, we are calling for systemic and urgent disability inclusion. Several critical steps are needed, and they must be engaged synchronously towards achieving disability-inclusive climate action. Each must include collaborations with organizations of persons with disabilities. Disability data, knowledge production, and climate literacy on how persons with disabilities are impacted by climate change can enable the development of disability-inclusive climate policies, plans, and initiatives that fulfill disability human rights.

“Climate change amplifies the marginalization experienced by persons with disabilities negatively affecting health, reducing access to healthcare services, food, water, and accessible infrastructure.”

HLT: Will lawyers and the law be critical to this effort, and if so, how?

Stein: Lawyers have a critical role in pursuing disability climate justice. The Harvard Law School Project on Disability is promoting disability climate justice through a disability human rights approach. We collaborate with organizations of persons with disabilities seeking disability climate justice, support implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by providing human rights training and education, and facilitating the development of international disability law and policy.

Lawyers also have a vital role in pursuing strategic climate litigation. In response to governmental inaction, people with disabilities are filing cases. These cases are important to increase government climate commitments.  

HLT: As you say in your paper, persons with disabilities may have a variety of needs. How can those planning for climate adaptation ensure that this diversity is taken into account?

Stein: Critically, climate mitigation and adaptation planning needs to occur in conjunction with organizations of persons with disabilities that represent the diversity of the disability community. This includes organizations representing persons with different types of disabilities such as intellectual, psychosocial, and visual disabilities as well as organizations of persons experiencing multiple types of discrimination such as women and Indigenous People with disabilities.

“The Biden administration, states, and local governments have an opportunity to ensure that green economic funding and policies lead to a disability-inclusive sustainable America.”

HLT: Are there any countries or regions that are doing good work in this area, or is this a global problem?

Stein: Globally, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change lacks a disability constituency, and persons with disabilities are neglected in National Determined Contributions, climate policies, and initiatives.

A Biden administration executive order has established a working group that focuses on climate change risk specifically to children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and the vulnerable. The Biden administration, states, and local governments have an opportunity to ensure that green economic funding and policies lead to a disability-inclusive sustainable America. For example, EV charging stations constructed via the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Critically, climate mitigation and adaptation planning must occur with organizations of persons with disabilities. San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan and San Francisco’s Hazards and Climate Resilience Plan, for instance, were developed with disability planners and disability stakeholders.

HLT: What do you hope results from your Comment?

Stein: We aim to catalyze a field of study on disability and climate change, and interdisciplinary collaborations with researchers, who have perhaps not yet focused on disability or climate change, persons with disabilities, and their representative organizations.