Opinion piece in the Canberra Times 

April 8, 2023

The extraordinary Kimberley, the largest and most intact tropical savannah on the planet, in the top four percent of the world’s unspoilt coastlines, an international tourism mecca that is home to 30 Aboriginal nations, is on the front end of climate change.

Prime Minister Albanese said in a visit here last August, “the Kimberley is majestic with astonishing beauty”. He has promised that his government will list the region as World Heritage if Traditional Owners want it. Less than four months later, the most devastating flood in Western Australia’s history engulfed the Fitzroy Valley destroying homes, displacing hundreds of Aboriginal people, killing native animals and cattle and obliterating infrastructure. The human, natural and economic costs are enormous and the recovery will take years.

This event should come as no surprise as both State and Commonwealth governments have known for years that this is what will happen with climate change in Northern Australia. Take the McGowan government’s WA Climate Projections Report which says of the Kimberley, “There is high confidence that the intensity of heavy rainfall events will increase”.

Then there’s the CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment ‘Climate Change in Australia’ website from 2015: “Increased intensity of extreme rainfall events is projected, with high confidence” [their emphasis] in Northern Australia.

This is what Kimberley people have just experienced and the State and Federal government’s own information says this is what the future holds. There is now a global consensus that extreme weather events like the January Kimberley floods are happening because we are extracting and burning fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow, as if future generations don’t matter and that some people don’t seem to care about turning places like the Kimberley into a wasteland.

These aren’t the only projections. The CSIRO and BoM have modelled temperatures in the Kimberley out to 2090 under different fossil fuel emissions policies. Fitzroy Crossing, which is already on a par with the hottest habitable places on Earth with an average 67.8 days over 40°C a year, will, by 2090, on current emissions policies, be an uninhabitable 225 days a year over 40°C. The Traditional Owners of the central Kimberley, after 60,000 years of occupation, will find it very hard to stay. PM Albanese and Premier McGowan know this.

How serious is the McGowan government about protecting one of the world’s great natural and cultural regions that is so vulnerable to climate change? Shockingly, not at all, as the Kimberley is on the cusp of being opened up for Texas-style fracking for gas and oil. Premier McGowan and State Development Minister Roger Cook are supporting one of the dirtiest, and most emissions intensive industries in the world in the magnificent, unspoilt landscape of the Kimberley. The emissions statistics are terrifying without even thinking about turning this landscape into an extensive gas field.

Climate scientists have calculated that if the Kimberley is fully fracked the emissions will be more than double Australia’s entire carbon budget for energy under the Paris Agreement. The current ‘Valhalla’ proposal in front of the WA EPA for 20 exploratory wells in the Fitzroy Valley would lead to 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions alone. The proposed production scenario, requiring over 900 wells, would emit 900 million tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide equivalent. Take a full-blown large-scale development of 9,000 wells and the emissions are a gargantuan 3.8 Gigatonnes – global scale pollution from one of the last remaining relatively pristine areas of the world.

These are all facts known to Premier McGowan and Minister Cook. Considering the approval of fracking in the face of this evidence is unpardonable.

Turning to Prime Minister Albanese’s response to the climate catastrophe that’s unfolding around the world and manifesting itself in the majestic Kimberley, all we have is his government’s safeguard mechanism. That mechanism in its current weak form will absolutely not prevent fracking in the Kimberley.

Has the Albanese government no shame in being on a par with Kazakhstan in allowing oil and gas companies unlimited offsets to allow them to continue polluting and to open up new oil and gas fields despite the International Energy Agency, the United Nations and climate scientists saying catastrophe awaits?

The safeguard mechanism as amended potentially opens the Kimberley to gas fracking destruction, a climate change refugee exodus and a disaster for nature. Even if proposed Kimberley projects breach the ‘hard cap’ on national emissions, the legislation will allow the Minister for Climate Change, Chris Bowen, to amend the rules and let it through. Then, Prime Minister Albanese, the majestic and beautiful Kimberley as described by you will succumb to decades of climate chaos and destruction.

Martin Pritchard

Environs Kimberley


Photo: Martuwarra Fitzroy River by Adam Monk


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