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Ronald Buliung is a University of Toronto Distinguished Professor of Geographies of Disability and Ableism.

Heat has been on my mind lately. Last spring and summer, the hottest on record, people across the globe fled wildfires with astonishing regularity. This year, the effects of rising global temperatures have continued unabated: El Nino aside, sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic are at record highs; forest fires recently wreaked havoc in Chile and Colombia; wildfire season started early in Alberta; and Texas recently experienced the largest wildfire in the state’s history. As I recently read Fire Weather, John Vaillant’s book about the apocalyptic 2016 Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire, I wondered what it would be like to try to evacuate my disabled daughter under such conditions. I sometimes think about the problem of having to leave my home quickly, only to arrive somewhere inaccessible – an unfortunately plausible scenario.

The climate crisis has made the lives of persons with disabilities disproportionately perilous. There are over a billion people globally who are disabled, most living in low- and middle-income countries where climate effects are often compounded by economic precarity. Climate change also produces disabling effects. Whether from the physical destruction wrought by extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat domes, or from the slow-moving effects of threats such as food insecurity (arising, in part, from climatic pressure on agriculture), the climate crisis has progressively managed to wreak havoc on our bodies and our infrastructure.

Perhaps most concerning to me, at this moment, is the paradox inherent in the global push (largely by high-income countries) for a net-zero world. In many ways, it may have the knock-on effect of causing disability and death elsewhere, particularly in resource-rich, low-income countries.

Consider the following: The federal government, in introducing the 2021 Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, promised that a net-zero Canada will have an economy that “either emits no greenhouse gas emissions or offsets its emissions.” Transportation contributes 28 per cent to overall GHG emissions in Canada, largely because of road transportation. In response, Canada (and other wealthy countries such as the United States and Germany) has decided that reaching net zero involves getting most of us into electric vehicles (EVs). Significant strides have been made in securing EV battery manufacturing contracts in Canada – big plans are clearly afoot for our EV future.

EVs may well be part of the solution, particularly where tailpipe emissions are concerned, but who will bear the cost of a net-zero future that requires particular forms of resource extraction and production to support it? EVs, and pretty much anything else that’s electric and rechargeable, rely on lithium-ion batteries, with the mineral cobalt being central to the battery puzzle (it helps increase an EV’s driving range). Most of the world’s cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and are mined using two methods: “industrial,” which has a greater emphasis on safety and uses heavy machinery, and “artisanal,” wherein the cobalt is mined by hand. In his book Cobalt Red, Siddharth Kara pulls back the curtain on the terrible human cost of artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC. These hand-dug, deep mines have forever swallowed, silenced or disabled many child and adult miners alike, and estimates suggest the artisanal mines currently have a labour force that includes between 35,000 and 40,000 children. Dirty cobalt can seep into the electronics supply chain through brokers who resell to industrial mining operations. A nuanced solution is required, one that doesn’t make things worse for the miners.

Cobalt mining in the DRC is a notorious example of the disabling possibilities of net-zero policy. There is also a history there of colonial industrial violence spawned by a rapacious global appetite for resources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the latex trade – also kindled by transportation innovation (for example, bikes and cars) – led to the disabling mutilations and deaths of millions in the Congo Free State.

Canada recently introduced the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act. A closer look reveals an act light on enforcement and heavy on reporting. Companies are required to report to the federal government on steps taken to “prevent and reduce the risk that forced labour or child labour” is present in their manufacturing and supply chains. Ambiguity on the “what” and “who” of reporting has plagued the legislation since the start. Those found in violation are subject to fines of up to $250,000 – perhaps a mere pittance for some corporations and government agencies.

Where can we look for solutions?

Under the United Nations Paris Agreement, Canada does have a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which indicates what the country actually intends to do about climate change. As of 2022, only 35 of 192 states that are party to the Paris Agreement refer to disability in their NDCs. By contrast, Canada’s NDC describes persons with disabilities as “an essential part of climate leadership and action.”

However, the UN has also been the source of mixed messaging on disability and the climate crisis. The big outcome of the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) meeting held in Dubai in November was the first-ever “Global Stocktake” agreement, which sets a global intention to end our reliance on fossil fuels (though I thought we’d already been taking stock for a while now?).

The stocktake has been heralded by some as “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuels, but very little was said in the agreement about disability and climate-change action. The UAE did promise “to make COP28 the most accessible to date through inclusive, authentic engagement” – an improvement on COP26, when Israel’s energy minister couldn’t get into the meetings in her wheelchair – but the stocktake only mentions disability twice, with disabled persons cast as passive actors in the climate story. This falls a bit flat. It also makes no mention of labour, injury, death or disablement from the extractive and manufacturing activities underpinning our net-zero future.

The general lack of acknowledgment of disability within COP statements, both recently and historically, speaks to a greater misunderstanding of the connections between disability and the climate crisis.

At the start of COP28, an agreement was struck to establish a “Loss and Damage” fund to address climate-change effects in “developing countries.” The fund casts climate change as the villain, with many high-income, high-emitter countries “pledging” anywhere from $400-million to $700-million to treat a $400-billion-to-$600-billion problem. The irony of the “pledge” countries not adequately pricing their own role in creating so much “loss and damage” to human well-being, however, seems lost on them.

Surely, as a global community, we can do better than this. Climate change is disabling – its solutions should not be.

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