In 1997, the innocuously named Global Climate Coalition published an advert in the press. Festooned with a picture of smiling children, the full-page ad begged the US president to not “risk our economic future”. Stressing that Americans have worked hard to make their country the world’s preeminent economic power, the ad warns Bill Clinton that a planned UN climate agreement would jeopardise generations of progress. “The big countries that compete with America for jobs, trade, and economic security have everything to gain and nothing to lose,” the poster adds. “This also means America’s sacrifices will not produce environmental gains.”

Unbeknown to many at the time, the Global Climate Coalition was actually not very interested in the environment. It was, after all, a front organisation, paid for by big oil – and big mining. It goes without saying, of course, that such a brazen rejection of the industry’s climactic responsibilities is unimaginable these days. The overwhelming consensus, both inside and outside the industry, is that mining can often be dreadful for the planet’s future, with corporate websites from Glencore to Vale touting acres of sustainable promises. And though success is sometimes spotty, this change in attitude can be detected in the numbers. According to work by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), for instance, its members cut their carbon footprint by 6% between 2016 and 2018. That’s echoed by progress at specific companies. In October 2021, Rio Tinto pledged $7.5bn to halve its direct emissions by the end of the decade.

Yet, no sooner has mining started getting its own environmental house in order than the carbon they helped spread has begun wafting through the floorboards. From extreme heat to apocalyptic rain, companies the world over are increasingly being forced to grapple with a cascade of environmental threats, each with the potential to endanger staff and strangle profits. Nor are there straightforward solutions to this deluge of problems. Rather, operators are having to adopt a number of changes at once, buying new equipment even as they build better roads, and reorganising emergency protocols as they reinforce tailings. Not that the situation is hopeless. Buoyed by increased funds, mining companies are battling to bolster operations at a time of climate crisis. Yet, in a world where the long-term environmental prognosis remains grim, the question remains: do mining operators ultimately need to cut back on operations altogether?

The cost of extreme weather

Mining in Burkina Faso is rough at the best of times. From patchy employment to the risks of poison – the gold industry here has typically used mercury as part of the extraction process – miners here have always had it hard. Even so, you get the sense that the local community was nonetheless shocked by events in the first half of 2022. In April, unexpectedly heavy rains during the dry season caused flash floods at a Burkinan zinc mine, drowning eight miners who became trapped underground. Nor was mining in the West African country, eighth from bottom in the UN’s Human Development Index, the only place to recently suffer from extreme weather. In Brazil, operations at a Vale iron mine were derailed by torrential rains. Further north, platinum mining in Montana was suspended after unusually hot weather melted the snow on nearby mountains, blocking crucial roads and bridges.

If these varied events span the globe, they can nonetheless be understood collectively – as a result of climate change. According to work by Carbon Brief, after all, 71% of extreme weather events were found by scientists to be more likely or severe thanks to man-made climate change. And as Jan Morrill emphasises, many mining corporations have traditionally been unprepared for these challenges. To prove her point, the campaign manager at the Earthworks NGO focuses on her own speciality: tailings. Eager to avoid unnecessary expenditure, she says many mining companies built tailings on the assumption that catastrophic floods would only happen rarely. But with climate change upending those assumptions, Morrill claims mining companies are being caught short. A reasonable point: in January 2022, authorities in Brazil warned that weeks of intense rain had left 36 tailings dams at risk of collapse.

It goes without saying, moreover, that a lax approach can have dire consequences for workers. Quite apart from the flooding victims in Burkina Faso, that’s clear enough by staying in Brazil, where the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster killed over 250 people. And even where extreme weather doesn’t lead directly to fatalities, miners can still suffer. Earlier this year, for instance, temperatures in the Australian outback hit 50.7°C, forcing workers to find shelter.

All this can unsurprisingly weaken company profits too. In 2018, for example, a German potash miner was forced to temporarily close two locations due to sudden water shortages, leading to daily losses of nearly $4m. In 2021, Rio Tinto announced a 12% slump in iron ore shipments from its Western Australian operations, ultimately due to heavy rainfall. “I think the whole world has experienced a significant increase in radical climate events,” summarises Christian Spano, the innovation and climate change director at ICMM. “Mining hasn’t escaped from that.”

A progressive path

At first glance, the Sentinel Copper Mine looks like any other in rural Zambia. Workers in hard hats scurry about, and lorries trundle by. But look down towards your feet and you will notice something different. Rather than the dusty tracks typical of the region, the roads here are smooth and sheeted, a recent investment by owner First Quantum Minerals. This may not sound like much. Yet, it speaks to an industry increasingly aware of the climate threat – and one eager to change. With proper roads, after all, staff can be sure operations won’t sink into the mud the moment it rains, particularly welcome given climate change is increasing the likelihood of heavy storms across Southern Africa. “It adds resilience,” stresses Spano, “to the kind of response that you can give when these events happen.”

Nor is the Sentinel Copper Mine unique. Across the world, mining companies are working hard to bolster their operations in the face of wild weather. Like in Zambia, these moves are often appealingly straightforward. If asphalting can help mitigate the impact of heavy rain, crushing ore inside a pit can reduce the need for roads altogether. It’s a similar story when it comes to fighting heat waves. In Australia, for instance, Anglo American has improved evaporation monitoring at its Drayton mine dam, ensuring it retains more water in dry conditions. That’s shadowed by better equipment more broadly. Spano says that some companies are giving staff waterproof workwear in the case of sudden storms, while others are improving in-mine communications, crucial to keeping staff safe if they need to leave quickly. Combined with more fundamental changes – Vale recently announced an $800m fund to cut tailings dams from its operations – and it’s hard to disagree with Spano that the industry has been “learning a lot” over recent years.

As varied as these technical tweaks are, however, the experts agree that they can’t succeed in isolation. As Spano puts it: “It’s not just one single thing – which tyres do we need to use on the trucks, or which telecom equipment do we need to improve? It’s the whole system that leads to better health and safety for an operation.” Morrill makes a similar point, suggesting that working with local communities, the people most threatened by rain or heat, is especially important. In particular, Morrill says that mining operators need to do a better job at explaining how they’re approaching weather-related emergencies, something she says has traditionally been an “uphill” struggle. Yet even here, there are signs of change. In September, to give one example, BHP announced it was investigating the consequences of climate change at its Escondida mine in Chile. Among other things, that includes studying the potential collapse of a tailings facility due to flooding, and how an increase in sea temperature could disrupt the local desalination plant.

Regulation, regulation, regulation

In other words, mining corporations are obviously shifting their operations to deal with climate change. Even here, however, the question of their own role in exacerbating the crisis remains unresolved. Morrill sees the irony here, arguing that the “best tailings dam is the one that isn’t built”. To put it differently: it’s all well and good mitigating the impact of climate change after the fact, but wouldn’t it be wiser to scale down operations altogether? Spano isn’t sure. As he says, industry giants have fought to reduce their carbon footprint for years, with the entire membership of the ICMM pledging to cut emissions to zero by 2050. At the same time, Spano hints these broad-brush promises are being echoed by a genuine change in attitude. “15 years ago, there was one person with the title of climate change in a sustainability team,” he says of a company’s corporate structure. “And now, the climate change team in many of our companies are part of the strategy team.”

Certainly, the financial extravagance of companies like Rio Tinto suggest something big is happening. All the same, the future is far from secure. At Earthworks, for example, Morrill and her team have uncovered 13 tailing dam failures or leaks since November 2021. It goes without saying that this trend will continue – climate change has, among other things, helped increase the likelihood of intense hurricanes by about 8% per decade since 1979. Beyond the largesse of the industry itself, Morrill, therefore, argues that lawmakers should get involved too, forcing operators to bolster their resilience to storms or sun even as they push emissions down. “We really need stronger and protective laws in place,” she says, “and then we really need governments to make sure that they’re being enforced.” There has certainly been some movement in this area. In Sierra Leone, a new law will allow local communities to veto new mining projects in their area, while Canada recently proposed tougher rules around coal mining waste. After all, considering international mining still contributes 8% to the world’s carbon footprint, plenty more than just our economic future remains in the balance.

This article first appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine.