A new book by Chris Turner lays bare Stephen Harper's stifling war on science
Chris Turner didn’t think he would find much that surprised him when he began researching Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “war on science,” as he calls it. For years, he’d watched the Conservatives defund environmental programs and prevent scientists from speaking freely to the press. But Turner tells the Straight he was shocked by the scope of the narrative that was revealed as his work progressed.
“More than anything, it was when you put all the pieces together, how vivid a picture emerges of a very clear and very malicious agenda,” Turner says in a telephone interview from Calgary. “It is to facilitate rapid resource extraction by dismantling an entire century’s worth of environmental regulations, environmental monitoring, and basic science. I was amazed by the extent of it and how deliberate it is.”
In his new book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, Turner, an award-winning environmental writer, lays bare how science has been politicized, controlled, and methodically stifled. He also explores the underlying motivations for the Conservatives’ turn away from verifiable research.
Harper and his administration have used three methods to diminish environmental stewardship, Turner explains. They’ve reduced the government’s capacity to gather data, and they’ve downsized or eliminated offices that monitor and analyze scientific information. They’ve also seized control of the channels through which science is communicated, and explicitly prevented the publication of research that could interfere with private industry.
Bill C-38, for example, amended 60 different pieces of legislation, repealed a half-dozen more, and essentially rewrote the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. It triggered cuts and closures at research labs and monitoring stations across the country. It was “like a hundred vicious scalpels”, Turner writes.
The consequences could be felt more acutely in British Columbia than anywhere else in the country.
Turner recounts how, for example, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was unable to complete a risk assessment for Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, a failure he describes as a “shocking breach of government responsibility”. Turner questions how government is making decisions on oil pipelines when research bodies are saying they lack the capacity to provide relevant scientific information.
At the same time, Turner continues, Ottawa has defunded agencies responsible for responding to environmental disasters such as oil spills.
Bill C-38 slashed funding for Canada’s Environmental Emergencies Program, which Turner describes in the book as “the federal government’s first response unit for oil spills”. It also shuttered regional offices in B.C., disbanded Vancouver Island’s marine contaminant group, and closed field offices in Prince George and Smithers (the two offices closest to the proposed route for the Northern Gateway Pipeline).
“The risks are mounting on all fronts,” Turner says. “And to decrease your capacity to assess and respond to those risks right in the middle of it is just so reckless and damaging to the health of the country.”
How can a government behave so irresponsibly? Similar policies enacted by former U.S. president George W. Bush were in part attributed to evangelical beliefs and an ideologically based skepticism of scientific methods. But Turner suggests that with Harper and the Conservatives, it’s simply all about business.
“Government should view as its top priority making industry run smoothly,” Turner says, describing the Conservatives’ approach. “Everything else is secondary, and anything that systematically gets in the way of that—particularly on the environmental front—should be diminished in capacity as quickly as possible.”
A quote in the book attributed to David Schindler, a scientist at the University of Alberta credited with cofounding Canada’s renowned Experimental Lakes Area, another victim of Bill C-38, suggests that ignorance has also played a role in shaping government policy.
“The kindest thing I can say is that these people don’t know enough about science to know the value of what they are cutting,” Schindler says.
Certain specific actions will be easy enough to reverse, Turner notes. A new government could restore programs defunded by the Conservatives fairly quickly, given that many were relatively small budget items, Turner says. It would also be easy enough to break the Conservatives’ tight control of federally funded scientists’ interactions with the press and the public. But the general climate of hostility could have lasting effects. Turner notes that researchers are already leaving Canada for countries with governments more appreciative of science.
“We’re potentially going to lose a generation,” he warns. “It could take a long time to rebuild that native expertise.”
Turner stresses that opposing Conservative policies that harm science is not a political action.
“At a moment where we really do have sort of a limited window of opportunity to try and make some serious headway on mitigating the effects of climate change, to be playing this recklessly with the facts is just beyond any kind of partisan battle,” he says. “It’s absolutely unforgivable.”