In the northern summer of 2016, an unprecedented heat-wave spread across Asia. Maximum temperatures reached 52.4 degrees centigrade. The Indian government reported that heat stress killed at least 580 people from March to May.

In India, heat waves are not new. But in addition to the temperature records broken, what the global scientific community found especially remarkable about the heat wave was that, for the first time, researchers determined that this extreme warmth “would not have been possible without climate change“. The researchers concluded that “all of the risk” of these extremely high temperatures can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

Dying for change

We don’t have to wait for 2050 to see the first victims of climate change (although the World Health Organisation expects that it will cause the premature deaths of 5 million people by then). Heat stress is just one killer we see today that will become even more deadly. We can add to extreme heat also the risks of more vicious storms, coastal flooding, bushfires, the spread of diseases, and other events that will kill people, kill animals, destroy ecosystems and property.

Australia’s global role in the production of fossil coal, oil, and gas, is large, and so too is its role in the release of greenhouse gases. The largest part of this is not from fuels that we burn here at home. Rather, the greater part is due to Australia’s exports of coal, oil, and gas.

We must recognise that some part of climate change, and the deaths already associated with it, occurred because of Australian fossil fuels.

Australia’s current fossil-fuel production centres are well known. These range from the coal fields of the eastern states, to the conventional oil and gas fields of the Northwest Shelf, Timor Sea, Bass Strait, and Moomba desert, and to the more-recently exploited unconventional coal-seam gas fields of Queensland.

Despite the human deaths, despite the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, despite the extreme weather events being recorded nearly every month right here in Australia, the government-supported quest for more and more fossil fuels continues. Explorers are searching the depths of the Great Australian Bight. Great floating gas-liquefaction factories are being deployed off the coast off Western Australia. Mammoth rail lines are planned from inland Queensland to move coal to the coast. When and where will it stop?

Ticking ‘carbon bombs’

By itself, Queensland’s proposed Adani coal mine would result in 5 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, an amount equivalent to a full-year of Australia’s emissions from all sectors — times 10. Clearly, Adani is a “carbon-bomb”.

But while one battle is being fought over Adani, even larger carbon bombs are planned elsewhere but receive less public scrutiny.

Using hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), oil and gas companies plan to exploit gas shales at depths four kilometres below the surface of sites in the Northern Territory. Given the destructive nature of fracking as demonstrated in the  United States, the people of the NT are rightly sceptical about the impact on their pristine water, land, and air resources of this invasive technology specifically, and of widespread oil and gas production practices generally.

As a step prior to deciding if a new shale-fracking industry should be given a green light, the NT government established an inquiry in 2016, which published its final draft report in December of last last year, and a social impact assessment last month. The inquiry, taking a scientific risk analysis-based approach, has declared that the many risks of a new oil and gas shale-fracking industry can be “managed”, provided that the industry establishes new and novel codes of practice. These codes of practice would cover everything from detecting gas leaks to disclosing the composition of fracking chemicals. The Northern Territory would become a leader in developing codes of practice that so far the rest of the world has failed to put in place.

Given the large shale deposits of the Northern Territory, the potential for greenhouse gas emissions stemming from these fossil fuels are four-seven times larger than that of the Adani mine: 20-35 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide, volumes equivalent to 40-70 years worth of Australia’s annual emissions.

Despite this huge pollution potential and the now acknowledged fact that people are already dying from climate change, the Northern Territory’s scientific inquiry rated the consequences of this potential carbon bomb on our global climate not as “catastrophic” or “severe”, but rather merely being of a “low” consequence.

If the full risks of climate change are considered, no scientific inquiry nor any government can responsibly approve a fossil fuel development. The inquiry should recognise the global climatic consequences posed by shale oil and gas and should not support its development in the Northern Territory.

Peter Fray

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