Weather forecasters at Environment Canada aren’t supposed to discuss climate change in public, says a Canadian government spokesman.
Environment Canada made the comments in response to emailed questions about its communications policy.
The department defended its policy by suggesting that Environment Canada meteorologists – among the most widely-quoted group of government experts in media reports and broadcasts – weren’t qualified to answer questions about climate change.
“Environment Canada scientists speak to their area of expertise,” said spokesman Mark Johnson in an email. “For example, our Weather Preparedness Meteorologists are experts in their field of severe weather and speak to this subject. Questions about climate change or long-term trends would be directed to a climatologist or other applicable authority.”
Environment Canada estimates that nearly half of all the calls it takes from journalists are related to the weather. Its meteorologists also offer a 24-hour media hotline that, unlike most government scientists, allows them to take calls directly from journalists, without seeking permission for granting an interview.
But the department’s communications protocol prevents the meteorologists from drawing links to changing climate patterns following extreme weather events such as severe flooding in southern Alberta or a massive wildfire in Northern Quebec in the summer of 2013.
Johnson said that all public servants must adhere to a government-wide communications protocol that was introduced in August 2006, a few months after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party was first elected to form a government. Johnson also said that Environment Canada hasn’t received any feedback about its restrictions on meteorologists or wasn’t aware about any concerns.
Meantime, the department has touted job satisfaction among its employees, by posting some of its own interviews with staff on its website.
In contrast, some recently-released quotes from a union-sponsored survey by Environics Research show the opposite, instead demonstrating fears among scientists about speaking out.
“With meteorology we are in a somewhat unique position in that our availability to the media is relatively unrestricted,” one government employee told the survey. “We do have to be careful what we say and keep it to the weather however. I outright refuse to answer climate questions, it is an issue fraught with too many traps. Could be career limiting.”
The quote was among dozens of first-hand accounts from federal scientists who expressed frustration about what they described as political interference in research based on the ideological views of Prime Minister Harper’s government.
The quotes, released by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, include references to “Orwellian” practices and descriptions of Canada as a “Banana Republic.” The union didn’t release the names of employees in order to protect their identities.
Many Canadian scientists from universities have alleged that the Harper government is muzzling public servants who do research on air pollution, water pollution or climate change that contradicts efforts to support growth in the oil and gas industry, which can contribute to these environmental problems.
Several cases of alleged muzzling have surfaced in recent years, including an internal Environment Canada analysis that found scientists felt muzzled and had observed an 80 per cent drop in media coverage of climate change issues, due to new restrictive communications policies introduced in 2007 that required scientists to obtain management approval before giving interviews about their research. But the government has denied it was trying to suppress scientific evidence.
Some of the employees quoted in the union survey slammed the Harper government for damaging the scientific credibility of their departments, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Health Canada.
“I think it is unbelievable that an organization that used to be looked up to for its climate records and the like in the past is now laughed upon due to its lack of resources and quality control,” one scientist told the union. “For example, snow depth information is severely lacking and this is used to control some of the mechanisms that drive the numerical guidance routines that forecasters use in their assessment of the day to day weather patterns.”
Catherine Potvin, a biologist and Canada Research Chair on Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests at McGill University, said that all weather forecasters, including those in the media, could play a role in helping the public understand what’s happening with unusual weather patterns.
“I think it’s good if scientists speak about what they know about,” said Potvin in an interview, after delivering a presentation Monday at the “Genomes to Biomes” science conference in Montreal.
“I don’t necessarily agree (with) the government trying to shut down these very capable scientists from talking. It’s a loss of expertise for the general public.”
The quotes from government scientists were released in support of the union’s internal investigation into allegations of muzzling of federal scientists. Its survey found that 90 per cent of federal scientists and professionals felt they couldn’t speak freely in public about their work and that 24 per cent had been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons.
“I’m probably quitting. Harper wins.” – Federal scientist in Canada
The government, in response, has touted an OECD ranking that places Canada first among G7 countries for research and development in colleges, universities and other institutes. This ranking also showed that Canada had reduced the percentage of federal spending on government research and science in recent years, that it was below the OECD average and was proportionately spending less than half as much as the United States in terms of the size of overall economic output or GDP.
Potvin urged scientists at the Montreal conference to inform all politicians about the evidence in order to improve Canada’s climate change policies in the 2015 federal election.
“We have a responsibility to say (to all politicians) that they’re making a mistake by not listening to us, because all of the research and all of the evidence is pointing to that,” said Potvin, who also worked as a negotiator for Panama at international climate change negotiations. “I did my PhD on climate change in the 1980s and ever since then I’ve read all of the climate models…(and for) all of these impacts that were being predicted in 1985, we see them now.”
The union, PIPSC, has estimated that the Canadian government is cutting about $2.6 billion and nearly 5,000 jobs from science-based departments between 2013 and 2016.
Among some of the other quotes released by PIPSC:
– A scientist with 30 years of experience in government said that federal labs used to be well-equipped and funded, but are now often being run by economists without scientific expertise, who focus on industry needs: “The mood has changed dramatically, we don’t appear to be concerned with public good. Rather we must do what industry wants us to do. In addition travel is impossible and equipment is old and labs look like some that I’ve seen in the developing world.”
– A scientist said the Conservative government is ready to silence evidence when the “facts play against their economic agenda: Two examples: the environmental damage and pollution caused by the exploitation of the tar sands and the serious impact of chemical pollution on the health of the population living in and around Sarnia.”
– A scientist who works on environmental assessments of industrial projects – specializing in waste, water, and species at risk – said his or her role as an environmental steward was silenced: “We are tasked with work that we ethically do not agree with and must support. If we do not, they simply bring in project people who are non scientists who will write what senior management wants to hear. I am over worked, disrespected, undervalued, and I hate every day of my job where I used to love coming to work.”
– A scientist said he or she has given up on giving interviews and now refers journalists to NGOs for comment because he or she feels it’s too much of a burden to go through all the steps of the approval process for granting an interview – a process that lasts several days if not more than a week.
– A research scientist said management responds negatively to “potentially significant data” and asks him or her to downplay findings, while discouraging consultation with the academic world.
– Another scientist said the government is “very subtly manipulating scientific information.” One example is that the minister wouldn’t approve a publication and instead asks questions and provokes delays until that publication is outdated: “Since the current government came into office, the words ‘climate change’ started to disappear from the titles of divisions and subdivisions of Environment Canada.”
– Several scientists said they were giving up and leaving government, including one who said: “I’m probably quitting. Harper wins.”