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Who Falls Behind When Sea Levels Rise

Two sociology students explore the future of accessibility for people with disabilities through climate crisis research.
April 24, 2023
By Nicole Calande
Two students stand at the foot of a staircase by a building's arched entrance.
| Emily Pachoud '23 and Ana Martinez '23 have been researching disability accessibility in climate disaster planning in SCU's O'Connor Hall. Photo by Jim Gensheimer.

Drought in Europe. Hurricanes in New York. Snow in Los Angeles. Over the last few years, unprecedented weather events have impacted people around the world—and now, experts believe that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of these once-in-a-generation natural disasters, putting more people at risk.

One of the groups most at risk? People with disabilities. For example, what happens if a person in a wheelchair needs to get to an evacuation site without a ramp, or if a Deaf person cannot hear an emergency alert? Unfortunately, despite the fact that one in four Americans identify as having a disability, the needs of this diverse group are largely unaddressed within climate crisis policy and planning.

These stories aren’t just hypotheticals. Seniors Ana Martinez ’23 and Emily Pachoud ’23 encountered dozens of eye-opening accounts from people with disabilities and climate activists while working as research assistants on a recent research study conducted by Assistant Professor Molly King.

One story that stuck with Martinez comes from the CZU Lightning Complex fires in California three years ago. A person with a disability was caught in an evacuation zone and called a rescue dispatch number to get assistance. No one came.

“That was shocking to hear,” recalls Martinez. “If you’re advertising this resource, people are relying on you as their plan to get to safety. If you don't show up, that's a systemic failure putting lives in danger.”

In a field dominated by numbers and statistics around rising sea levels and methane emissions, Martinez and Pachoud believe that hearing stories like this one is crucial to understanding the realities of those directly impacted by climate change.

To able-bodied individuals who think that these experiences aren’t relevant to them, Martinez wants them to think about curb cut-outs. “Sure, they’re helpful for people in wheelchairs,” she explains, “but they’re also great for people with strollers, or people on bikes, scooters, or skateboards.” It’s a simple feature that demonstrates the potential of using empathy to design a world that can be enjoyed by more people. “Accessibility actually improves the lives of everyone—and this is only amplified when applied to global issues that disproportionally affect marginalized communities.”

By looking at the barriers people with disabilities face in navigating climate disaster response plans, Martinez hopes their study can demonstrate how increasing accessibility will save more lives, disabled and otherwise. For Pachoud, she wants their work to challenge debates around whose lives are worth saving and why.

“When we're looking at these big-picture catastrophes, there's a tendency for society to leave a lot of people behind if it takes extra effort, that those people are an ‘acceptable loss of life,’” she says. “To me, this borders on eugenics. We clearly have the money and resources to help those who need more assistance.”

Since joining King’s research team as sophomores, Pachoud and Martinez have helped build awareness of this topic in both academia and on-campus. Collectively, the team wrote a teaching guide for classrooms, a book chapter, a statement for SCU’s Environmental Justice and the Common Good Initiative, and are currently working on a larger manuscript based on their qualitative study.

“I never would have guessed in my freshman year that this research was going to be such a defining part of my college career,” Martinez says. “I am just so lucky to have Molly as a mentor and professor. She has really given Emily and me the freedom to bring our individual interests to these projects.”

“I’ve been climate activist for a while,” adds Pachoud, “and after reading through those perspectives and really absorbing them, I realized that I had left a whole group of people out of my activism. I'm just learning so much from these anecdotes, and it's opening my eyes to a whole lot.”

A student sits on a bench behind purple flowers in the foreground.

Emily Pachoud '23. Photo by Jim Gensheimer.

Prioritizing Passion

A first-generation LEAD scholar, Pachoud grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Climate change never came up in her schoolwork or social life—that is, until she had the chance to take an AP Environmental Science class in high school.

“That’s when it became my priority,” she says. “I realized that climate change affects everyone globally. It’s just so important.”

She followed that sense of urgency to Santa Clara where its many environmental student groups and Center for Sustainability stood out to her. She came in as a mathematics major but quickly found that it was impossible to keep the climate crisis in the backseat of her studies. “Santa Clara helped me realize that I would be happier pursuing what I’m passionate about rather than what would just make me money.”

A group of students sitting in a garden holding a circular sign saying

“Through these week-long tUrn conferences, so many people are learning about the climate crisis which is so hugely important in helping other people act,” says Pachoud (second from left).

Outside of classes, Pachoud worked as a campus activist—joining student groups like ENACT and GREEN Club, advocating for fossil fuel divestment, and bringing climate speakers from around the world to SCU for tUrn, a bi-annual climate conference project.

As she looks forward to a career in environmental non-profit work, Pachoud will miss the Bronco activist communities she’s been so involved in, but she’s proud of the tangible impact that tUrn has had in changing campus conversations around environmental issues across its four years of events.

“I’ve worked hard to help our university embody its Jesuit values. In return, my time at Santa Clara and my relationships with my professors and classmates have put me on this path that I really want to be on.”

A student stands in a power pose with a cloudy blue sky behind them.

Ana Martinez '23. Photo by Jim Gensheimer.

Embodying Justice

As an outdoor enthusiast, Martinez was initially drawn to Santa Clara because of the short drive between campus and the beach. However, after taking lecturer Damian Park’s “Economics of the Environment” class, her entire perspective on the natural world shifted.

Through learning about carbon taxes and pollution abatement, not only did she better understand the impact of climate change on the natural world, but she was fascinated by how these changes impacted people’s everyday lives and businesses. That’s when she started noticing the environment more in her everyday life.

As a member of SCU’s Division I rowing team, Martinez spent hours on the water and in nature each week—something she now acknowledges was a privilege.

“Not everyone has a park or green space around the corner that they can walk to. If they do, there might be a lot of air pollution or waste on the ground. The fact that those things happen disproportionately based on what community you're a part of has become an issue I really care about.”

Two lines of women rowers approaching the camera

This year, serving as her rowing team’s captain has taught Martinez (front, right row) how to lead as the person she is.

After graduation, Martinez plans to pursue her Master’s around the intersection of global climate change and economic development. Her dream? To work in a large research institute on the front lines of climate action.

While it can be daunting to face these huge issues head-on, Martinez says that being part of a growing movement in groundbreaking research inspires her to push forward.

“We hear a lot of unfortunate things about climate change on the news, but I know that there are like-minded researchers coming up with better solutions to fix a lot of these issues and enact policy changes. I’m so glad this experience with Molly and Emily has given me an opportunity to help fill the gaps in our field of research.”