On April 18, the India Meterological Department issued a heatwave alert across several states, once again highlighting the imminent dangers posed by extreme temperatures to both physical and mental health. These recurring heatwaves serve as stark reminders of the escalating climate crisis in India. Forecasts indicate that such events will only intensify in the future.

The impact of extreme heat is a traumatising experience with far-reaching and devastating consequences. Beyond the immediate threat to life, the mental health toll of enduring high temperatures can exacerbate anxiety, particularly when the relief of cooler nights is denied by persistent heatwaves.

Some people are more affected than others. For example, outdoor workers such as construction workers or farmers, are disproportionately affected, experiencing heightened levels of psychological distress and physical discomfort due to occupational heat stress.

Furthermore, people with mental health conditions face additional challenges, including disrupted body temperature regulation exacerbated by psychotropic medication.

Climate change affects both the physical and mental health of persons with disabilities, increasing mental stress and anxiety daily, with spikes in trauma during extreme episodes of floods and heatwaves. Persons living with mental illness face triple the risk of death during a heatwave.

Speaking about the recent forest fires in Uttarakhand, a disability rights activist narrated how evacuation to safety was virtually impossible for those with locomotor disabilities due to the lack of pathways. By chance, if persons with disabilities manage to evacuate, disabled women were unable to use the makeshift washrooms and bathing areas due to fear of harassment and abuse from men.

There is increasing evidence that disabled individuals face a higher risk of experiencing mental health concerns such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder as well as a higher risk of suicidality when left in such a vulnerable position.

For too long, the implications of climate change on human rights were not fully recognised. However, recent developments signal a shift towards acknowledging the fundamental rights imperiled by climate-related disasters. The United Nations’ recognition of the rights to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in 2022 marked a significant milestone in the pursuit of rights-based climate justice.

In a landmark decision last month, the Indian Supreme Court echoed this sentiment, affirming “states owe a duty of care to citizens to prevent harm and to ensure overall well-being” and went on to decide that “the right to a healthy and clean environment is undoubtedly a part of this duty of care. States are compelled to take effective measures to mitigate climate change and ensure that all individuals have the necessary capacity to adapt to the climate crisis”.

What do these legal pronouncements mean for governance in the context of the climate crisis? First, they underscore that it is imperative for governments to prioritise the protection of their citizens in times of climate-related disasters. The national government and many states already have disaster management plans as well as heat action plans in place.

While 2019 saw the launch of guidelines to protect people with disabilities during disasters, this has not resulted in specific measures in climate action plans, heat action plans or on ground implementation.

These judicial rulings, coupled with a growing civil society movement calling for inclusive climate action offer hope for meaningful change. At the COP 28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai last year, like-minded organisations published a statement with a series of recommendations aimed at advancing the rights of people with disabilities in climate action.

I am heartened by the fact that climate, Adivasi, feminist, queer and disability movements are coming together, sharing expertise and strategising action. With many people with disabilities facing exclusion and stigma, the first principle needs to be participation, often described as “nothing without us”: elevating the voices of those directly impacted by the climate crisis is paramount, as their insights and experiences must guide policymaking and implementation.

In embracing a people-centered approach to climate action, it is imperative to prioritise inclusivity and intersectionality. With time running short, we must act swiftly to pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

Raj Mariwala is the Director of Mariwala Health Initiative, which provides grants and strategic support to organisations and collectives working within communities to provide greater access to mental health services for all.