Opinion: Fracking and fires, the risks of denialism (NT Rural Weekly)

By David Barnden

IN THE aftermath of the Tathra bushfires in March, the Australian Prime Minister denied the impact of climate change on human safety.

Malcolm Turnbull started out his professional life as a barrister but, as a politician, he is losing his understanding of evidence.

The NT inquiry into fracking last week showed it’s own brand of denialism on climate change.

“As you know very well, you can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a drought or a fire or a flood, to climate change,” Mr Turnbull declared while discussing the recent fires affecting Tathra.

“Nature has always hurled her worst at Australia … always has and always will.”

We owe it to those who have suffered to try to understand why these events happen.

Regardless of why the first spark occurred, understanding the cause of severe weather conditions that exacerbate bushfires, and avoiding them in the future, is essential.

Attribution science relating to extreme weather events is developing at a rapid pace.

Scientists have a sophisticated understanding of how climate change has altered the probability of a particular weather event happening, and the intensity of those events.

We can no longer claim these once-in-a-lifetime events, that seem to keep happening, have nothing to do with the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, Mr Turnbull’s genre of denialism pervades decision-making around Australia.

Last week, a Northern Territory inquiry into fracking said climate risks can be managed.

Despite declaring risks of global emissions from burning NT gas as “high” and unacceptable, the inquiry washed its hands of responsibility.

Fracking is acceptable if governments offset emissions.

Offsets are like negative emissions: they aspire to bring emissions to net zero with no guaranteed way of achieving that goal.

Scientists describe negative emissions as an “unjust and high stakes gamble” that ignore the emphasis on equity and risk aversion in the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, implementing offsets has a history of failure in Australia. Eminent scientists wrote to the inquiry before its decision, citing the expectation that the number of days over 35C in Darwin will increase from 11 to 308 per year if emissions remain unchecked over the next 50 years.

They recommended banning fracking to avoid a large and unacceptable increase in emissions incompatible with the Paris Agreement.

The inquiry did not follow the scientist’s recommendation. Again, serious climate risks took a back seat.

In situations of regulatory failure – of which climate policy is perhaps the most egregious example – courts can fill the void.

This is increasingly the trend, with significant litigation across the globe calling out government and company actions.

The writing is on the wall: if the Australian, State and Territory governments continue to turn a blind eye to scientific research, decision- makers may end up in court.

As science gains depth and sophistication, climate cases are beginning to bite.

Attribution science for extreme events is one such example and lawyers, as well as engineers, architects, planners and builders, are incorporating advanced science into their work.

The foreseeability of a particular risk is a key element in many of these cases. This becomes harder to deny as attribution science becomes more robust.

In Colorado, for example, the state’s Court of Appeals agreed with six young people that the health and safety of the public must be prioritised over fracking.

The Court said there was clear authority for decision makers to stop fracking until it can be done without causing harm to people and without exacerbating climate change.

Many young people are also involved in a landmark lawsuit which claims US federal government actions causing climate change violate their rights to life, liberty, and property. After numerous challenges, the case is proceeding to trial.

Australian company directors know they must avoid following Mr Turnbull’s sloppy denialism, or pay the price. In August 2017 Environmental Justice Australia became the first legal practice in the world to file court proceedings against a bank over directors’ disclosure of climate risk in annual reports.

We lodged the case in the Federal Court on behalf of long-term shareholders in the largest public company in Australia, the Commonwealth Bank. Only then did the directors disclose the true extent of risk to investors.

It was the first such case. It will most certainly not be the last. Governments and companies in Australia and around the world are on notice.

Lawyers are investigating and prosecuting legal actions to protect citizens and investors from denialism.

Against this backdrop, it is almost inconceivable that our Prime Minister spouts uninformed rhetoric about climate change.

Such ignorant views are precisely what will come back to haunt, in different ways, those in power and the many more vulnerable individuals in our society.

Published by NT Rural Weekly on 2 April 2018

 

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