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.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Prime Minister Stephen Harper/Credit: Prime Minister of Canada's office

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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.

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.

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.

In September, Weaver announced plans to seek the Green Party nomination for a legislative position in the May 2013 provincial election—a position similar to a state legislator in the United States. He is currently up against two other candidates from the New Democratic Party and Liberal Party and plans to run mostly on an environmental platform.

“Canadians don’t typically mobilize against things,” Weaver said. “But what is happening has outraged a lot of people. … I think [the protesting] you’re seeing now is just the beginning.”