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Outcry Grows Over Canadian Govt's Undermining of Climate Science

Federal researchers are on the front line of Harper's alleged 'war on science' as the country's oil ambitions clash with its scientific agenda.

Nov 27, 2012
Prime Minister Stephen Harper

The government of Canada's official position on climate change is that it's real and requires an "aggressive" response.

Despite that, Canada's ruling Conservative Party government has been leading a slow and systematic unraveling of environmental and climate research budgets, according to local scientists—including shuttering one of the world's top Arctic research stations for monitoring global warming. Hundreds of researchers have lost their jobs, and those that remain are forbidden from talking to media without a government minder.

"They publicly announce their commitment to dealing with climate change and acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but then they go ahead and do the exact opposite," said Andrew Weaver, a climate modeler at the University of Victoria and a lead author of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"They've closed virtually every funding avenue for climate and atmospheric science. They are deceiving the Canadian public."

The alleged "war on science" is so bad that some scientists are leaving Canada for jobs in countries where they feel they have more opportunities and freedom. Protests by scientists and their supporters have erupted across the country in recent months.

Representatives from Environment Canada, the federal environmental agency, and Industry Canada, the department in charge of economic development and investment, denied that the government has targeted environmental science or scientists. "It is wrong to suggest that science ... in this country is under assault," said Stefanie Power, a spokesperson for Industry Canada.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper's office did not respond to requests for comment; it has previously said the cuts are cost-saving measures to balance the budget and slash the country's $26 billion deficit.

But some scientists and environmental groups say the eliminated climate programs are a tiny fraction of the budget and that at least one of the government's goals with the cuts is to reduce opposition to oil sands development, the backbone of Canada's energy economy. Extracting and processing oil sands crude creates 20 percent more well-to-wheel greenhouse gas emissions than drilling for conventional oil.

Harper has weakened some environmental regulations, including fast-tracking permit reviews of oil sands pipelines and mines. He has also pulled Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and appointed climate skeptics to head scientific agencies, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, whose work benefits industry.

Canada's natural resources expansion plans are "driving absolutely everything in the country right now," said Tom Duck, an atmospheric scientist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "Our capacity to do environmental science is being rapidly destroyed. We're hemorrhaging scientists here."

Budgets Being Cut, but Why?

In July, in a rare show of outrage, thousands of scientists, graduate students and supporters marched through the streets of Ottawa in white lab coats to protest the cuts in federal science spending, the first of several protests.

Climate science programs and researchers have been some of the hardest hit from the cuts—especially since the passage in June of the 500-page Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, also known as bill C-38.

Under that bill, a federal advisory panel established in 1990 called the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy—which for years has urged the government to take a firmer stance on man-made climate change—was eliminated. So was a program that funds a dozen research stations in the Arctic and another that monitors greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions from power plants in Canada. Also cut was the climate adaptation research group within Environment Canada.

The move followed similar rounds of funding cuts since Harper took office in 2006.

The nonprofit Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which awarded more than $100 million in research grants over the past decade, recently lost all its government funding. Funds were cut for the government's Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, which runs a number of climate change studies, as well as for the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Data Center, a group run by Environment Canada that has measured ozone and radiation since the mid-1950s.

Twelve thousand government jobs are expected to be affected by the latest cuts, according to the journal Nature—thousands from the sciences.

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