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Advancing Disability Climate Justice in the Courts: Assessing Strategies for Including Persons with Disabilities through Litigation around the World

March 25, 2024

12:15 pm - 1:30 pm

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Increasingly, climate activists are leveraging human rights frameworks and international instruments to challenge state failures to respond adequately to the global climate crisis through strategic litigation. The UN Environment Programme’s 2023 Global Climate Litigation Report, for example, indicates that there have been 2,180 climate-related cases filed in 65 jurisdictions, including international and regional courts, tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies, or other adjudicatory bodies, such as Special Procedures at the United Nations and arbitration tribunals. Few cases, however, address the outsized effects of climate change on persons with disabilities, which risks further invisibilizing this at-risk group from governmental responses to climate change.

Among the few cases that do address the rights of persons with disabilities is Friends of the Earth v. Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, decided in 2022 by the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. There, the High Court ruled that two of the United Kingdom’s decarbonization strategies failed to comply with certain provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008, which was the first piece of legislation anywhere in the world to set domestically enforceable carbon reduction targets. Although not central to the High Court’s judgment, the three claimants argued that the government failed to consider the impact of its Heat and Buildings Strategy on people with protected characteristics, including persons with disabilities, who are disproportionately affected by issues such as energy poverty.

Other pending cases provide reason to hope for advancing disability climate justice. In particular, a complaint brought by Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of five youth with indigenous and disability identities before three United Nations Special Rapporteurs argues that Australia’s Nationally Determined Contributions are inconsistent with its human rights obligations to the  Complainants and to young people in Australia, especially young people from First Nations communities and persons with disabilities. More recently, in response to a joint request by Colombia and Chile the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is poised to deliver an advisory opinion on the scope of states’ international human rights obligations to confront to the ongoing global climate crisis. In a joint filing with the Programa de Acción por la Igualdad y la Inclusión Social (PAIIS) and the Disability-Inclusive Climate Action Research Program (DICARP), HPOD has urged the Court to ensure that States Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights are aware of their obligations under international law to ensure that their climate change adaptation and mitigation measures are inclusive of persons with disabilities. Closer to home, Voglewede et al v. City of San Antonio, filed in the Western District of Texas, takes aim at the city’s failure to adequately include persons with disabilities in their disaster and emergency planning, resulting in avoidable suffering by residents with disabilities in the aftermath of the 2021 Winter Storm Uri.

This panel of experts and practitioners on March 25th, from 12:15 to 1:30pm US Eastern time, jointly organized by HPOD and the Harvard Law School Environmental & Energy Law Program, will take stock of strategies that have been used in climate litigation to advance disability climate justice and make recommendations for how climate litigators can better incorporate the unique climate risks faced by persons with disabilities into their litigation strategies as well as for how disability rights organizations can work with climate litigators to catalyze structural changes that are inclusive of persons with disabilities.

Live CART captioning will be provided.


Professor Michael Ashley Stein, Executive Director, HPOD


Hezzy Smith, Director of Advocacy Initiatives, HPOD


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March 25, 2024, 12:15 pm - 1:30 pm

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