Climate change is a complex, dynamic, and sometimes polarizing issue. Libraries, on the other hand, are an established democratic institution meant to bring people together and facilitate the sharing of information. However, the Canadian government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has managed to inject libraries into the broader national debate and make them a controversial focal point in a larger polemic between environmental concerns and natural resource development. His administration’s agenda of closing renowned fisheries and oceans libraries along with cutting back scientific funding for important environmental research is experiencing a bout of attention as the reality of certain libraries emptying their shelves comes into public view.
The Canadian government is closing seven of the eleven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries across the country in what they deem a cost-cutting measure. Government officials promised that critical materials wouldn’t be lost, but would instead be digitized, offering greater access. However a document classified as “secret” that was obtained by Postmedia News mentioned “culling of materials” as a main activity in the reduction of libraries. As some of the libraries proceed through the shutdown process, reports have emerged of books being strewn across floors and even piled into dumpsters.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans released a statement saying, “the decision to consolidate our network of libraries was based on value for taxpayers.”
According to the department, the government will save $430,000 annually by consolidating pertinent materials into a few other locations, including the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C., and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S.
One reddit user described the closing process as hectic and rushed, saying, “What really annoys me, is that they could have both saved costs and saved the books for free:”
“I worked for a gov’t agency that had to get rid of its library, due to the costs. They donated all the books to the local university’s library. The University gave all the employees library cards. Simple. Why the heck would they think the best solution is to trash the books!?”
While the books themselves should be properly archived, in the long-run they are not necessarily the main concern — it’s the information they possess that really matters. The potential for loss of information through the reorganizing process — information that doubtlessly cost millions of dollars to establish — has brought on a heavy backlash from scientists, already at odds with the Harper administration over research cutbacks.
“In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding,” CBC News reported on Friday. “Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down.”
According to the article, this week scientists started coming forward in protest over information that could be lost with the closing of the libraries.
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, told CBC News that “what’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge, and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world:”
“It also means that going forward, whether it be policy analysts or scientists or members of the public, there won’t be a library there that collects material for them to use. So there’s not only the danger of losing what we’ve had, which may be irreplaceable, but it’s also in future, that resource isn’t going to be there in the first place.”
Any information lost from the Oceans and Fisheries libraries could prove especially poignant to future scientists, considering Canada possesses more than 20 percent of the surface freshwater in the world and it is a major seafood-exporting nation. However the Harper administration would appear to view these assets much as they view the libraries that document them — as opportunities for cost-cutting.
A recent investigation by Postmedia News found that “more $100 million in cuts are underway at the federal department in charge of protecting Canada’s water and oceans … Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is eliminating about 500 jobs at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans related to Coast Guard services, patrols to stop illegal fishing activities as well as scientific research to promote conservation, protect endangered species, and prevent industrial water pollution.”
According to the article these cuts follow a redefined mandate for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that eliminated a number of environmental laws, which had the effect of reducing federal oversight on industrial development. Here it is apparent that the government’s interests and environmental and climate concerns are not dovetailing, but diverging and even conflicting.
The Harper administration has already established a dirty name for itself by prioritizing fossil fuel development to a level surprising for a country known for its environmental commitments. In 2011 Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto protocol, the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile the tar sands, which produce energy-intensive oil that would be transported down the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, continue to turn the region’s boreal forest into uninhabitable wasteland. And it was recently reported that the Alberta government tasked regulatory responsibility for the tar sands industry to a corporation that’s funded entirely by Canada’s oil, coal and gas industry. The Canadian government promotes the tar sands as the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world, next to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
This type of profit-driven disregard has unsurprisingly caused many scientists to voice concern over the long-term damage that the Harper administration is causing the country, only exacerbating the current poor relationship between scientists and government.
In a September editorial, The New York Times wrote that “over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists.”
“In retrospect, I am not surprised at all to find them trashing scientific libraries,” retired water ecologist David Schindler said. “Paranoid ideologues have burned books and records throughout human history to try to squelch dissenting visions that they view as heretical, and to anyone who worships the great God Economy monotheistically, environmental science is heresy.”
On Friday, “the fifth estate,” a Canadian documentary series, is airing an episode called Silence of the Labs that discusses what is at stake for scientists and the general public with recent cutbacks in research.
In the program, Tom Duck, a professor of Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University, says the lack of climate change research and monitoring in the High Arctic are what worries him.
According to CBC News “Duck fears that the Harper government’s pursuit of valuable oil and gas resources in the Arctic, as they become increasingly accessible due to climate change, led to the cuts at his research station that was located just 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole.”
“We know that climate change is an enormous problem. It is the problem for the next century, so if you want to get out your oil, you have to get it out now,” Duck told the fifth estate. “If you want to get it out now, you make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems. If you want to make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems, you take away all their funding.”