A spokesperson for Canada’s federal government has confirmed that meteorologists employed by the Stephen Harper administration are not allowed to speak publicly about climate change, saying the scientists are not qualified to weigh in on the issue.
The government’s communication policy does allow meteorologists to talk about extreme weather, but they are prohibited from talking about climate patterns that could have affected that weather, Environment Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson told investigative journalist Mike De Souza. If journalists or others want information about global warming, they would be directed to a government climatologist, Johnson said.
“Environment Canada scientists speak to their area of expertise,” Johnson told De Souza in an e-mail. “Our Weather Preparedness Meteorologists are experts in their field of severe weather and speak to this subject.”
When it comes to climate change, climatologists are inherently much more qualified to speak about it than meteorologists. As pointed out by Media Matters, their models are different and they ask different questions. Indeed, a handful of weather forecasters have been known to sometimes skew the issue, which then becomes false evidence for conservatives to back-up their climate denial.
But the revelation about Environment Canada’s policy on meteorologists is important moreso because it adds to widespread allegations that the Canadian government has embarked on a widespread campaign to muzzle its scientists from all angles. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s communication policy, federal scientists must seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews to reporters, and in many cases must get approval of what the response will contain.
Environment Canada spokeperson Danny Kingsberry confirmed the policy on meteorologists to ThinkProgress, but declined to comment on whether the policy represents an attempt to prevent scientists from speaking out about environmental issues and climate change. De Souza noted in his story that the agency has posted some interviews with staff on its website in order to assure that its scientists are satisfied with their jobs.
However, many Canadian government scientists do feel frustrated and muzzled — a finding confirmed by a recent survey which saw 90 percent of federal scientists feeling like they can’t speak freely about their work, and 24 percent saying they had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons.
“I’m probably quitting,” one scientist surveyed said. “Harper wins.”
The restrictions on scientists have been effective at preventing stories from being written, especially when it comes to climate change. A leaked Environment Canada analysis found that there had been an 80 percent drop in media coverage of climate change issues since the Harper government’s communications policy went into effect.
The muzzling of scientists has been just one of a number of ways the Canadian government under Stephen Harper, a fierce supporter of tar sands development, has worked to create a hostile environment for journalists who are critical of the administration — particularly when it comes to the tar sands. A number of journalists told ThinkProgress that they’ve experienced defensiveness, spitefulness, and intimidation from the federal government that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.
“We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-winning journalist who has been reporting critically on Canada’s oil and gas industry for more than 20 years. “It’s a hostility and thuggery, is the way I would describe it. That’s exactly what it is.”
There are logical reasons why impeding environmental journalists and muzzling scientists could be in Canada’s interest. The Canadian tar sands are the third-largest oil reserve in the world, and production is currently accelerating so quickly that the government predicts capital investments will reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Part of that investment could come courtesy of a completed northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial proposal that, if approved, would bring up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day down to refineries in the United States.
Climate change is one of the biggest reasons why the tar sands are controversial. Because the oil has such a unique, thick, gooey makeup, producers must use what is called “non-conventional” methods of getting the oil out of the ground. Those methods are more carbon-intensive, meaning they emit more climate change-causing greenhouse gases than normal drilling.
Because of large increases in tar sands extraction, Canada’s energy industry recently became the largest producer of climate-change causing greenhouse gases in the country, narrowly beating transportation for the first time.