Climate Risks for Mining

p8_flooded_ensham_mineThe nexus between climate justice and mining is not only about emissions.

While the extractive industries significantly contribute to climate change via emissions and greenhouse gas, little attention has been on the risks climate change pose for existing and future mining activities and sites.

In an article in “The Extractive Industries and Society”, Scott D. Odell and Karen E. Frey concluded that the literature on climate change and mining is scarce particularly in developing countries. In light of the acceleration of climate change incidents and events beyond previous expectations this should send a red flag to policy makers and all engaged with climate change preparedness.

The climate risks that extractive industries face include the rise of extreme and unpredictable weather impacting upon mode of mining activities, mining sites and their surrounding communities and environments. This will not only affect profitability and labour conditions. For example floods can disrupt the tailing of mines sending excess polluted water into the storm drains, placing surrounding communities at significant risk of polluted water. In turn there’s a predicted scarcity of water and consequential negative impacts upon hydrological systems as they adapt to changing climatic conditions. The impact of potential infrastructure damage and energy stress due to climate change upon mining activities is another risk that has not been appropriately assessed by many companies and governments.

Analysis of climate change impacts upon the extractive industries leads to complex assessments and predictions that can’t be limited to one geographical site or polity. As with the origins of climate change the causal chains and interconnectedness of resource use and harm affect the acceleration of climate change in turn. The feedback loops are terrifying.

The Canadian Arctic mining area faces multiple risks when serious permafrost thawing occurs, such as unleashing of toxic waste, hydrological and soil pollution plus a substantial increase in carbon emissions. As pointed out by James Wilt in 2016 the realisation of these potential risks would cost billions of dollars to remediate and put many ecologies and lives in danger.

Already the Rio Tinto majority owned Diavik diamond mine is having transportation issues as the early thawing of the ice roads that enable vital truck deliveries are no longer easily accessible. Rio Tinto states on its website that is aiming for a substantial decarbonisation of their business by 2050 and claim that as a whole, 75% of their energy comes from hydro, nuclear and renewable energy. Despite this past energy reliance decisions affect present waste management and infrastructure, which then feeds into toxic possibilities in the future that governments and communities are unprepared for.

Climate change also opens up new sites of exploration. As glaciers melt the exploration of what lies beneath is already occurring and without the glacial barrier these areas become more accessible for extraction. This cruel trajectory of the earth’s geological history speaks to the ethical difficulty of our age where doing collective harm to the earth can result in maximising short-term profitability whilst continuing with long term destruction.

The justice issues around the impacts of climate change and the mining industry are manifold and include the following concerns:

  • Need for climate adaption and extreme weather readiness requires investment and governance. This means an increased vulnerability of mines within nations of substandard infrastructure and weak governance. Again, the impact will hit the poorest the hardest.
  • Manifold incidents of injustice and violence along the feedback loops of mining that does not substantially take account of the precautionary principle inclusive of climate risks.
  • Resources use or harm of the global commons (water, air, land) in order to mitigate against climate risks resulting in water scarcity, extreme droughts, storms.
  • The capacity of industry to move into jurisdictions that are weak on climate governance encourages careless and negligent assessments of climate risk. This results in further exploitation of poorer nations and communities and a widening of climate justice inequality globally.

It is interesting that Canada and Australia lead the research on the impacts of climate change on the mining sector. This is due to their reliance upon these industries coupled with their vulnerability to climate change but also because they have the resources to do the work. Many nations are more vulnerable due to their fiscal incapacity to incorporate climate risks at a policy and governance level. Therefore there is not the development capacity for the complex data and research required in order to foresee and mitigate against climate risks.

Unlike many other industries mining is inherently dependent upon the natural environment and geology therefore has a greater responsibility in care of the earth. While all communities and ecologies across the world will be affected by the emissions of the extractive industry, particular care needs to be taken for those in proximity to and unable to prepare or adapt to the incoming risks.

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