Climate scientist claims Stephen Harper's government has muzzled experts

In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver joked that he hasn’t received any thank-you cards from the Conservative party for his new book, Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (Viking Canada, $34).

Weaver, a lead author of three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, claimed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have ignored the input of scientists while preparing the government’s response to global warming.

“They were making policy without even consulting their environmental scientists,” Weaver charged. “I know that for a fact.”

He added that Harper and other top Conservative policymakers have also refused to meet representatives of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a national organization that, according to Weaver, has brought Canada to the international forefront of scientific research on climate change. “They don’t want to meet them because their policy is not one based on science,” Weaver said. “It is based on ideology and what’s best for the Alberta oil-sands industry. That’s the bottom line.”

In 2007, while Weaver was writing his book, several high-profile developments heightened public interest in climate change. The IPCC released its fourth assessment report, which unequivocally concluded that the planet was warming. It also stated that this was “very likely” due to greenhouse-gas emissions created by human beings.

Later that summer, there was a stunning decline in the amount of Arctic ice, shattering the previous record by more than 20 percent. Near the end of 2007, the IPCC and former U.S. vice president Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the wake of these developments, the Harper government decided to muzzle government scientists, prohibiting them from talking about climate change with the media. Weaver writes in his book that new rules required these scientists to obtain authorization from media-relations staff before doing interviews.

According to a PowerPoint presentation circulated among Environment Canada staff, reporters must submit questions in writing, and scientists’ answers have to be transmitted through media-relations staff. Media-relations staff can ask the expert to respond with “approved lines” or refer the reporter’s call to the minister’s office or another department, according to Weaver’s book.

“It’s absolutely Orwellian what’s going on here in science in Canada,” Weaver claimed.

He added that he was “sad but not surprised” when the Conservative government deleted references to the IPCC’s reports from Environment Canada’s Web sites. Harper didn’t respond to a request for an interview with the Straight by deadline.

The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme created the IPCC in 1988 to assess climate change. Three IPCC working groups assess peer-reviewed research but do not make policy recommendations to governments.

Keeping Our Cool focuses a fair amount of attention on how greenhouse-gas concentrations have increased in the atmosphere since preindustrial times, creating a blanket that traps heat. The book explains why scientists have concluded that if there isn’t a 60-percent reduction in these gases by 2050, Earth will likely warm by more than two degrees Celsius over preindustrial times by the end of the century. And if emissions aren’t stabilized at less than 90 percent of 2006 levels (1.1 billion tonnes), the two-degree threshold will be reached well before 2050.

“This is close to the lower bound of warming estimates beyond which the Greenland and perhaps the West Antarctic ice sheet pass the point of no return,” Weaver writes. If the Greenland icecap melts, an inevitable seven-metre increase in sea levels will result, taking many centuries to occur. If the West Antarctic ice sheet melts, sea levels will rise by another five metres, Weaver has concluded.

The Conservatives claim on their Web site that their “balanced, achievable plan” will reduce Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Weaver’s book, however, cites research by the Pembina Institute and the C. D. Howe Institute to support his claim that the Harper government’s policies won’t result in any drop-off by that time.

That’s because the federal climate-change plan focuses on emission-intensity reductions—restrictions linked to every unit of production—rather than on cutting overall emissions. “From the information provided in the federal plan, we learn that by 2020 the oil sands sector will be required to reduce its emissions intensity by 23 percent,” Weaver writes. “But oil sands production is also expected to quadruple by 2020.”

The net effect, he adds, would be a tripling of greenhouse-gas emissions from the oil sands by 2020.