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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
(Page 2 of 4 )
Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Critics have questioned the Harper government's austerity claims partly because the environmental science programs that were cut receive so little funding. For instance, Experimental Lakes Area cost the government just $2 million and the National Round Table just $5 million, all from a roughly $11 billion science and technology budget.

At the same time, sectors expected to spur industry innovation like engineering and life sciences saw a boost from the law. For example, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a nonprofit corporation that funds things like research equipment and labs, will receive $500 million over five years beginning in 2014.

Power, the spokesperson for Industry Canada, wrote in an email that while "discovery-driven basic research" (which environmental science falls under) remains an essential government priority, "we also believe in the transformative potential of science in the marketplace and the need to improve our business expenditure on research and development."

"In today's modern economy, our quality of life is driven by productivity and innovation in the private sector," she said.

Scientists interviewed for this story said they believe environmental programs, especially those focused on understanding and tackling climate change, are seen as a threat to government plans for energy security and economic growth, especially its plans to increase oil sands production and exports. Between 2010 and 2035, the oil sands patch could generate $2.1 trillion in economic activity across the economy, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

As an example of how Harper is obstructing scientific progress on climate change, critics point to its decision to shut the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). The research station is one of the closest labs in the world to the North Pole and is considered one of the best in the Arctic. It has been collecting atmospheric data since 1992, but it lost its main funding stream earlier this year when the Harper government eliminated the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.

At the same time PEARL's closure was announced, Harper unveiled final plans to build the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, nearly 800 miles south of the previous lab. The administration plans to spend $142.4 million over the next six years to build the facility and another $46.2 million over the next six years on research. PEARL's annual operating budget was just $1.5 million.

Cambridge Bay is too far south to measure ozone depletion or effectively capture the Arctic's response to climate change, according to Duck of Dalhousie University, who spent years conducting research at PEARL and had to lay off nearly his entire research team when funding was cut. Cambridge Bay is a hub of oil and gas exploration, located where the Northwest Passage is opening up because of declining sea ice. 

Duck said it doesn't make financial sense to close PEARL and open CHARS if the economy is the biggest issue. "They are using science as cover for the building of the new observatory, but in reality it will be a command and control center for resource extraction and sovereignty."

The CHARS website says the lab "will be on the cutting edge of Arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development." It also notes that the building was announced under "the rubric for Strengthening Canada's Sovereignty and Place in the World."

Environmental Scientists Being Muzzled

In 2007, a year after Harper's Conservatives formed the government, Environment Canada—the country's equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—instituted a new Media Relations Policy. Materials presented to program heads said because there's "one department, one website" there will be "one department, one voice."

Suddenly, journalists couldn't contact scientists with whom they had close ties for years. Instead, they were funneled through media relations officers. Approval for interviews took days or weeks—if they were approved at all. In the United States, many, though not all,  government scientists are allowed to speak to media without approval, including those at NOAA.

In 2011, for instance, Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick announced the discovery of the largest ozone hole ever reported above the Arctic, about twice the size of Ontario. The department denied all media interview requests with Tarasick for roughly three weeks following publication of the research. This month, news broke that Environment Canada scientists were restricted from talking with reporters about research showing contaminants in snow near oil sands operations.

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