OTTAWA -- A dramatic reduction in Canadian media coverage of climate change science issues is the result of the Harper government introducing new rules in 2007 to control interviews by Environment Canada scientists with journalists, says a newly released federal document.
“Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high-profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80%.”
The analysis reviewed the impact of a new federal communications policy at Environment Canada, which required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews.
In many cases, the policy also required them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview, said the document, obtained in an investigation into the government’s views and policies on global-warming science that was conducted by Climate Action Network Canada, a coalition of environmental groups.
The document suggests the new communications policy has practically eliminated senior federal scientists from media coverage of climate-change science issues, leaving them frustrated that the government was trying to “muzzle” them.
“Many [federal climate change] scientists are recognized experts in their field, have received media training, and have successfully carried out media interviews for many years,” said the document, leaked by an Environment Canada employee who asked not to be named.
“Our scientists are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media.”
The Environment Canada analysis noted that four prominent scientists, who regularly spoke for the government on climate change science issues, appeared in only 12 newspaper clippings in the first nine months of 2008, compared with 99 clippings over the same period in 2007.
“There is a widespread perception among Canadian media that our scientists have been ‘muzzled’ by the media relations policy,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of this perception, which originated with a Canwest story in February 2008, is continuing, with at least 47 articles in Canadian newspapers to date.”
The document also noted that government scientists voiced their displeasure to communications officials about the policy during meetings in June 2008. A few months later, a couple of requests for interviews with scientists in the midst of the 2008 federal election campaign were never answered, including one request that was “denied” after it was forwarded to the office of former environment minister John Baird.
Andrew Cuddy, 21, who led the investigation by Climate Action Network, said that it reveals “troubling evidence” about the government’s approach to climate-science research, funding, appointments on science panels and communications.
“We’ve catalogued a host of evidence from different areas,” said Mr. Cuddy. “They kind of all point to the government trying to undermine climate science research. [It] goes against their public statements saying that they’re committed to research and that they believe the fundamentals of climate science.”
The coalition said that one of the biggest concerns is whether the government is adequately funding climate-science research at Environment Canada and other departments after refusing to offer new subsidies for an independent research organization, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science, considered to be the lead agency for global warming research in Canada’s universities.
“It’s definitely a scandal,” said Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. He added that the government was “muzzling scientists; they’re putting climate deniers in key oversight positions over research, and they’re reducing funding in key areas... It’s almost as though they’re making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.”
Environment Minister Jim Prentice told reporters last week that the government wasn’t trying to shut down the foundation but wanted it to report on how it spent previous grants of $110-million dating back to the year 2000.
“It’s appropriate I think at this point that we take stock of what we’ve achieved for those dollars,” Mr. Prentice said. “We’ll work together with the foundation to make sure that that happens. They’ve got the resources to do it and we’ll assess it from there.”
The foundation says it has funded nearly 200 research projects that have led to breakthroughs in climatology, meteorology and oceanography, transforming operations in the federal government and private companies. But it has described Prentice’s approach as a “nightmare scenario” since it no longer has money for new research.
In a statement e-mailed to Canwest News Service, Environment Canada said the new communications policy has allowed its scientists and experts to interact directly with the media on numerous occasions.
“The new policy merely assures that communications with the media are co-ordinated, to achieve the goals set out above -- namely, quick, accurate and consistent responses across Canada,” said the statement.
It added that it responded to 254 climate change-related requests in 2008 and 428 climate change requests in 2009.
The department also said it has taken many steps to inform Canadians about the work done by government scientists, including partnerships with other departments, new content added to websites such as www.science.gc.ca and the publication of Envirozine, an Environment Canada newsletter, as well as publishing about 700 peer-reviewed articles per year.