Facing the Storm

Cyclones, Gas Development and Climate Justice in Northern Australia

In the Northern Territory, there can be a tendency to take extreme weather events lightly. In Darwin, memories of destructive winds are washed down with tales of waiting out cyclones in bathrooms, listening to the radio, drinking through slabs of warm beer.

But these light hearted mythologies belie real stories of exile and suffering, and masks who this suffering happens to. In the past few days thousands of people have had to flee their homes ahead of of Cyclone Trevor. Images of people being evacuated in military jets are evocative of conflict driven displacement. Emergency accomodation includes a tent city at Marrara stadium, the same site of a refugee camps established for Timorese fleeing the violent aftermath of their vote for Independence in 1999.

Whilst evacuees from some communities are beginning to return home as the weather eases, the displacement caused by natural disasters can drag on well beyond the event. In Galiwinku, residents have been in temporary accommodation for over three years after Cyclone Lam. Emerging reports of disparities in accomodation for Aboriginal and non Aboriginal evacuees is reflective of racially driven inequities,and troublingly foreshadow priorities in resettlement.

Severe storms and cyclones have always been a part of the Top End’s weather patterns, however climate change modelling predicts that they will happen with greater severity. The increased intensity of extreme weather events, coupled with predicted sea level rises and escalating temperatures, are reflective of the Northern Territory’s vulnerability to climate change. This vulnerability is compounded by a lack of infrastructure and services in remote communities, which are reflective of the ongoing impacts of colonialism on people’s social and economic well being.

Climate change can no longer be referred to as a future event. The Northern Territory, like much of Australia, is already experiencing it’s impacts, with average high temperatures in January being 6C above normal. During the extreme heat wave over the New Year’s period, Alice Springs experienced an unprecendented 3 days over 45C, prompting riots in the Alice Springs prison in response to over heating due to lack of air conditioning and exhaust fans in overcrowded cells. Compounding this is the lack of monsoonal and summer rain, with water tables in Darwin’s rural areas reported up to 9m below previous year levels.

Despite these vulnerabilities, successive governments, both Federal and Territory, remain committed to on and offshore gas as a cornerstone of economic development in the North. Amidst widespread public opposition, the Gunner ALP governement lifted it’s moratorium on fracking in 2018. In announcing it’s confidence in mitigating the impacts of the fracking industry ‘to an acceptable level’, the government ignored the most basic tenants of climate science; increasing carbon in the atmosphere is causing widespread and dangerous climatic changes, and the leading cause of increasing atmospheric carbon is the burning of fossil fuels. This is a failure to acknowledge the catastrophic cost of climate change to current and future generations of Territorians. Fracking doesn’t create development, it is destructive and actually undoes it.

Cyclone Trevor made landfall in the Northern Territory a day short of the one year anniversary of the Gunner government lifting the moratorium on fracking. The path of the cyclone tracked directly over the MacArthur and Beetaloo basins, both of which are ear marked for fracking. Video footage from the site of the controversial MacArthur River mine has been broadcast on national media, whilst the potential storm impacts on lead tailings dams to local river ecology and surrounding communities are unmentioned and unimaginable.

It is increasingly clear that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences. Many of the people evacuated due to Cyclone Trevor are at the coalface of the impacts of both the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Environmental academic Rob Nixon uses the term Slow Violence to describe how long term, grinding impacts of environmental harm, such as climate change, are often overshadowed by the boom and bust cycles of spectacle driven news. Extreme events, such as cyclones, provide an opportunity to bring this slow violence into view, enabling us to see how the well being of current and future generations is being sacrificed for the short term economic development of the few

Current warming indicators, such as extreme temperatures, are already exceeding current climate change projections. The earth is a complex system, which we are still learning to understand. Given the unpredictability of climate modelling, there is no way we can accurately predict the impacts of burning existing fossil fuel deposits, such as those in the Beetaloo basin or the proposed Adani mine. Even if we are to hold those that benefit from the sale of these resources responsible for the costs of burning fossil fuels, we have no clear ways to measure what they would be, and few strategies for mitigation.

In a climate changed world, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is entwined with human suffering in ways that transcend traditional geographical boundaries, as well as time. Burning fossil fuels is as much a driver for fires in California and typhoons in the Philippines, as it is for natural disasters closer to home. All of these disasters have a cost, and that cost is increasingly borne by communities who have the least responsibility and influence over extraction and subsequent climate change. Fracking the Beetaloo, like all fossil fuel exaction, will escalate the displacement of countless communities, estranging them from their homes, businesses and ancestors, now and into the future.

A fundamental proposition of climate justice is that those that are the most impacted and who are least responsible for climate change should be the first in line to receive the benefits of a transition and should be given the support and resources to lead that transition. Cyclone Trevor provides a wake up call for the need to urgently revision our priorities and models of social and economic development, in response to an unpredictable and rapidly changing global climate. This is not an easy task, it will take imagination, courage and leadership on behalf of governments, communities and individuals. But not to do so would be a greater failure, not only of imagination, but of morality as well.