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.

On the Ground

Perched in the front of a dinghy, or an old blue Hilux, my father travelled me through country.

Through the wetlands and rivers of the Top End, country merged his childhood with mine. From him I learnt to read stories clutched in the soft fold of the paperbark, or in the movements of fish turning on the tide. These are my favourite memories, set in liminal hours of electric rose bud dawns and sunsets washed in pink and red.

As I grew so did a desire for elsewhere. Unable to locate myself in popular culture I migrated south to find a place that fit. I spent chunks of my early twenties couch surfing the east coast and churned for years in Melbourne’s cold belly. Finishing uni I returned home to find Darwin on the precipice of a mining boom. When a chance work trip took me south to the desert, I finally found somewhere to belong.

Alice Springs was as far from my expectations as it is the ocean. On my second trip down, I rang my employer in Darwin and told them I wouldn’t be coming home. It was the beginning of a ten-year love affair with community and country. I spent much of it trying on tropes like old cowboy boots, wearing them in till they became my own. Now so much of myself is entangled here, it’s hard to stay, and even harder to leave.

Like many of my peers, I have a revolving door relationship to country that sits in stark contrast to that of the Arrernte people who have lived with this land forever. A friend, who owns a house and a business, starts looking at maps when the days and money get too dry. Others, farmers, went where the rain was regular and the land was still cheap. Despite it being cheaper to own than rent here, I sat on a deposit for years, watching housing prices fluctuate and the rental market get squeezed. I’m not sure what I fear more, being indebted to a bank or to a place.

We live in a reciprocal relationship with stories – weaving in and out of each other. Stories find their way out through people, as much as people find their way in through story. ‘The collective unconscious was put together at a series of truck stop meetings on a long highway across the plains of time’, writes Craig San Roque. We settlers embody stories of our ancestors in the form of cultural complexes. Here they rub up against the existing narratives, sometimes forming new ones in the process. Perhaps I carry the story of homelessness from the displacement of my ancestors into my own life.

In my darker moments I’m scared I only know how to be a coloniser, that I don’t have the story for anything else. The mythology of my Gaelic ancestors is marked by waves of occupation. This occupation has an unbroken lineage to the one I find myself within here. Well after the arrival of Christianity, poet philosophers continued to steward our myths across generations, carrying histories the safest way—in tongue and blood and bone. But without land to anchor our stories we are a people without marrow. What can be remembered – what thread will lead us home?

‘I watch the ancestors dance but they are not my ancestors’ writes Kim Mahood, observing ‘white Australians are becoming disenfranchised from any right to a deep sense of connection to country, the impulse towards the sacred which has always driven human beings to establish a sense of meaning and belonging.’ The impacts of this disconnection are catastrophic. Despite being one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, we continue to ride dark waves of coal and gas exports that break in the atmosphere and in our aquifers, and in violent clashes between anti-mining protesters and police.

We assert our claim to country by our right to exploit it, and the right to turn others away. On our northern shores another wave is breaking, boats of refugees smash up against border control. Climate and conflict are entwined. So many are without a home. Asylum seekers are greeted by a vicious form of nationalism. Perhaps as Alison Broinowski suggests, fear of invasion stems from our knowledge that we are living on stolen land. This fear is expensive – $9.6 billion spent on detention centers and border control in four years alone. The moral cost is incalculable, the impact of this on all of us remains unknown.

On the streets of Alice Springs, displacement is ever present. Our homeless levels soar above the national average as affordable housing grows scarce. Shelters and jails reach capacity, children wander the streets at night. Sleeping out is an offence and police are deployed to move people on. In the face of so much insecurity, my search for a home seems trivial. I eye my moving boxes with caution, grateful I am safe for now.

British mythologist Martin Shaw, suggests we learn ‘to labour under the related indebtedness to that stretch of Earth that you have not claimed, but has claimed you.’ Being of a place puts us in service to location, and gives us a context to navigate the ups and downs of remaining in one place. ‘To be of means to be in’ he writes ‘to have traded endless possibility for something specific.

But being claimed by a place as a coloniser is problematic – how does one belong to occupied land? San Roque suggests that the culture of the British is to canabilise. We consume other cultures, trying to absorb them into ourselves. In writing on climate change and Indigenous knowledge, Tony Birch warns white Australian’s against ‘going native’ as a way of healing our relationship to place. I’m scared of stealing someone else’s story, as much as I am of stealing land.

So what is the story I am telling, and where does it belong? Is there a way to weave these disparate threads together into a connection to place. Dislocation may well be one of the most prevailing narratives of our time. With so many more of us on the move than ever, is there a story that can teach us how to anchor our transience in place?

The heart is a way in. Wedged between outrage culture and vitriolic patriotism, I feel into a tender and problematic grief. The chasm of colonialism takes me into the heart of settler diaspora, where the holes in our psyche manifest in the landscape as fracking wells and open cut mines.

We need to remember a story that speaks to our disconnection with country and it’s custodians. The threads of this story are tenuous, worn thin by generations of dislocation. Across the world, love is emerging as a force for social change. It is love for country, fragile and fraught, that has drawn me back to Central Australia. It is love for country, that envelops me in the solidarity of the anti fracking campaign. This love gives me the courage to ask difficult questions of myself, my past and my people. It propels me through time and space searching for stories that can help us navigate out of the purgatory of amnesia, guilt and denial. Love demands we remember where and how we belong. I believe it’s true, what they said in Dakota ‘it is love that will save this place.’

It takes a long time of listening to country before you hear it call your name. After seven years I left Central Australia because I couldn’t find a future in this place. Despite my love and commitment to country, I still struggle to anchor myself.When the urge for elsewhere overcomes me, I go down to the river and ask the trees to teach me to put down roots. In this way I practice the art of arrival in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to stay.

Published in Imprint 2019, the NT Writers Center’s Annual Journal

This research takes place on the unceded sovereign lands of the Arrernte and Larrakia people.

I pay respect to their elders, past, present and emerging, and the continued resistance and resilience of all First Nation’s people.

Always was, always will be, Aboriginal Land