The Island of Doubt

The problem with Canada

Since I moved to North Carolina (five years ago next month), it’s been depressing to watch the political climate there move ever closer to the one the U.S. managed to pull itself out of in 2008. The latest news, which concerns attempts by the federal government to silence its own climatologists, only reinforces that interpretation.

From the Montreal Gazette we learn of an internal review at the Department of the Environment:

The document suggests the new communications policy has practically eliminated senior federal scientists from media coverage of climate-change science issues, leaving them frustrated that the government was trying to “muzzle” them.

“Many [federal climate change] scientists are recognized experts in their field, have received media training, and have successfully carried out media interviews for many years,” said the document, leaked by an Environment Canada employee who asked not to be named.

That was followed by a letter from David Schindler, a veteran scientist and champion of environmental affairs in Canada for what seems like as long as I can remember, in the Ottawa Citizen:

It is clear that muzzling under the Harper government is the most oppressive in the history of federal government science. Incredibly, some of the most eminent scientists in Canada have been forbidden to speak publicly on scientific matters where they are recognized as world experts, ranging from climate change to pollution of lakes and rivers. Instead, the public is referred to media-savvy spin doctors, who usually know very little about the science of these topics, spouting the party line.

And the Guardian/IPS has this to say:

Earlier this month, the new federal budget failed to provide any funding for Canada’s main climate science initiative, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences. Funding everything from global climate models, to the melting of polar ice and frequency of Arctic storms, to droughts and water supply, the foundation will run out of cash early next year.

“Their (federal government) actions make it clear they don’t care about climate change,” said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria.

“This administration is a very different form of government. It is top-down, and run by a small group who are anti-science,” Weaver told IPS.

Weaver is one of Canada’s most cited climatologists and an IPCC author. Like Schindler, he finds it easier to communicate his findings to the public than do his civil-servant colleagues. That’s as it should be. Tenure gives you privileges that employees of government can never expect. But as even the Bush administration learned in the Hansen affair, diverting every media request to political PR staff just doesn’t work very well. It’s a lesson the Harper government in Canada hasn’t learned:

Canadian scientists have told IPS they required permission from the prime minister’s communications office to comment on their own studies made public in scientific journals and reports.