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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 3 of 4 )
Prime Minister Stephen Harper

The policy has had an impact on the coverage of climate science in Canadian media, according to an Environment Canada 2010 internal analysis of the media protocol obtained by Climate Action Network Canada (CAN), an advocacy group. The number of climate change stories declined by more than 80 percent between 2007 and 2008, the first year of the media policy. Hannah McKinnon, CAN's campaign director, said the situation has only grown worse in the past several years, with even fewer scientists being granted approval to speak with media.

One former Environment Canada atmospheric scientist who was fired last year in a round of budget cuts, and who asked not to be identified because the scientist's current employer collaborates with the department, said media relations managers would send researchers emails warning them not talk to reporters at conferences or public events. Other Environment Canada scientists have reported being shadowed by staff at meetings.

"It is ridiculous," the scientist said. "Morale is so low. People are scared to talk because they know their job is on the line. It doesn't make sense. These are publicly funded scientists doing work for the good of the Canadian public. Why shouldn't they be allowed to talk about it?"

Mike De Souza, a reporter covering energy and the environment for Postmedia News in Canada, told InsideClimate News he has dealt with the restrictions since they were established. Whereas Environment Canada used to be his first stop for sources, he now interviews scientists at private universities who can talk freely and under tight deadlines. But even that can be tricky, he said. "Any university researchers doing work with federal funding are often also constrained in what they say ... because they are worried about getting their funding cut."

Environment Canada responded quickly to InsideClimate News' request for comment about its relationship with media. Previous attempts by this reporter to interview scientists for other stories were rerouted to media relations officers, who wrote back within 24 hours to a few days offering to help set up an interview (often not with the scientist requested) and requiring a list of questions in advance. Many times media officers would join the call when the interviews took place.

"Our response to media inquiries is exemplary," Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, told InsideClimate News. In 2011, Environment Canada received more than 3,100 media calls, he said, citing internal records. Johnson said agency officials, including scientists, completed more than 1,200 media interviews plus hundreds of email responses.

Johnson did acknowledge that Environment Canada scientists face restrictions on what they can talk about, but he said the same rules apply to all public servants. "In Canada's democratic system of government, [commenting on government policy] is reserved for ministers and their designated spokespeople," he said. "This is a fundamental tenet of our public service values."

Canadian 'Brain Drain' and Growing Awareness

Scientists say Harper's policies are creating a Canadian "brain drain" as researchers flee the country for more stable research opportunities abroad.

Ted Shepherd, an atmospheric physicist, told InsideClimate News he left the University of Toronto in May for a position at the University of Reading in the UK partly because his funding got cut and partly because his wife, also an atmospheric scientist, couldn't find a job in Canada.

"It has been really devastating," Shepherd said. "Either you need an industrial link or be in a small targeted area to get funding, otherwise there is no place to go, especially not for climate. ... The situation is completely different in Britain. Here they are investing heavily in climate science."

Jeff Pierce, another atmospheric scientist, said he is leaving Dalhousie University for Colorado State University at the end of the semester in part because the Environment Canada program he collaborated with, called CORALNet, vanished from the funding cuts.

Coverage by Canadian journalists like De Souza of the so-called war on science is raising awareness among Canadians, McKinnon of CAN said, nearly all of whom believe in climate change.

"Now that the issue is no longer behind the scenes, scientists are starting to feel comfortable standing up and voicing their concerns—and the general public is taking notice."

Weaver, the University of Victoria scientist, said he couldn't stay silent anymore after watching dozens of his colleagues and friends lose their jobs. He has since become one of the most outspoken scientists criticizing the Harper administration's policies. Weaver was a lead author on the IPCC's seminal fourth assessment of climate change trends and is also a lead author on the global panel's fifth assessment, which will published next year.

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