Harper Conservatives, Global Warming, and Muzzled Scientists


Last October, Canada’s government scientists launched the Public Science website to tell people about important scientific issues — like global warming and the cancellation of the long-form census — because the current Conservative government under Stephen Harper has muzzled informed debate. By refusing to consider scientific evidence in making policy, Canada is out-of-step with most nations in reacting to the world’s most pressing issues. As a science journalist, I know that our politicians are enacting decisions that will ruin lives in the world’s poorest countries.

Any Canadian who follows international news shouldn’t be surprised that we failed, for the first time, to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Canada is now seen as one of the world’s most grasping and immoral countries. Seriously. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. To give but one example, Stephen Harper’s decision to work tirelessly to scuttle a climate deal at the Copenhagen climate summit has been so badly tarnished our reputation that it may take a generation to repair. The level of animosity towards us is breathtaking.

So I’m thrilled by this new web site, and I’ll explain why through the prism of my own experience as a global warming activist.

In the last federal election in October 2008, Dr. Andrew Weaver — a noted climate scientist and author honored by the Nobel Prize Committee — urged Canadians to vote for the environment and remove Stephen Harper from the Prime Minister’s office. He was joined by 120 of Canada’s top scientists who — in an unprecedented move — urged Canadians to vote strategically to defeat the Conservatives.

It’s rare for scientists to leave their proverbial ivory towers and comment on political matters, but many are now doing so because climate change is running so fast and so hard, and events that weren’t expected to happen for 100 years — like the melting of Greenland — are happening today. Weaver, who wrote a terrific global warming primer called Keeping Our Cool, calls climate change the defining issue of our time.

But that letter was a rare thing, so the global warming debate is not being framed by climate change experts in Canada, but by politicians and right-wing commentators who don’t know their ass from their elbow. And there’s a reason why this is so.

Taking a page from George Bush’s immoral but surprisingly effective playbook, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are muzzling government scientists. The experts aren’t allowed to talk to Canadian journalists — and by extension — Canadians. As far as I’m concerned, the assault on science should be one of the top stories of 2010, but it’s only been reported here and there, and often buried on page 7 in the newspapers that ran with it.

Here’s the background. After Canada was roundly condemned at the Bali climate change summit in December 2007, then-Environment Minister John Baird ordered climate scientists at Environment Canada to stop talking to the media without his office’s official permission. Baird, a lumbering and heavy-handed partisan, was tired of critical headlines and being forced to answer climate change questions that were beyond his ken. He didn’t understand the issue, and grew tired of looking stupid.

On the surface, you may not think this a big deal. But if you’ve ever worked in a news room, you understand how this simple act can essentially silence debate and dissenting opinion. If you have a story to write on federal or provincial government climate policy, and the deadline is tight, you may not have the time to search for experts who can provide an insightful comment or two. Environment Canada is your go-to source, with a bevy of experts as near as your phone.

Now, suddenly, you can’t call them for a timely quote. So you could try an environmental group like the Suzuki Foundation or the Sierra Club, but far too many right wingers unfairly think of them as tree-loving, granola-eating socialists, and wrongly dismiss their views as unscientific alarmism. So then you need to look for centers of climate excellence at universities. Presuming your Google search is successful, you’ll find professors like Dr. Weaver. Unfortunately, they have classes to teach, seminars to run, conferences to attend, research to oversee, and they lead thoroughly busy lives. With that deadline looming, and a surly editor screaming for your copy, you may not be able to wait upon your expert.

And so it goes. Harper doesn’t want Canadians to know that, on the international stage, we are now deemed the most egregious of the world’s climate villains, staking out a selfish position that will result in death and misery in countries most affected by climate change.

The muzzling policy has been extraordinarily effective. Early last year, a leaked document from a source at Environment Canada (EC) shows that media stories on global warming are down by 80 percent in the Great White North since the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper muzzled government scientists.

Senior scientists in Canada are frustrated by the government’s lies of omission, and feel that Canadians are being kept in the dark about one of the most important issues facing the country. They have voiced their displeasure to the government communication officials, which appears to have resulted in an increasingly frosty relationship. As a result, four experts who were quoted in 99 major articles during a nine month period in in 2007 were only quoted in 12 articles during the same period in 2008.

“It’s definitely a scandal,” said Graham Saul, Executive Director of Climate Action Network Canada. He added that the government was “muzzling scientists; they’re putting climate deniers in key oversight positions over research, and they’re reducing funding in key areas [...] It’s almost as though they’re making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.”

It’s scandalous that our scientists have been muzzled; this is a story that sounds more appropriate to the Sovet Union of the 1960s, not Canada in 2011.

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