Conservatives greenwash record on environment

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | July 01, 2013The world is hotter. The warmest thirteen years of recorded average global temperatures have all occurred in the sixteen years since 1997.A warming planet means disappearing glaciers and sea ice, especially in the Arctic, where the extent and thickness of summer sea ice has shown a dramatic decline over the past thirty years. A 2011 article in the prestigious journal Nature showed that the duration and magnitude of the decline may be unprecedented in the last 1,450 years.Scientists and economists are enormously concerned about these changes. In the future, climate change is expected to increase precipitation and further melting of glaciers, and perhaps alter the 'ocean conveyor belt'.Climate change will also affect permafrost, which today: covers almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere; extends to depths of more than 700 metres in parts of northern Canada and Siberia; and contains 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon or twice the amount currently in the atmosphere. Warming would cause huge quantities of organic matter stored in the frozen soil to thaw and decay, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and significantly increasing the rate and magnitude of climate change.The World Economic Forum warns that climate change is a "serious and urgent challenge," that it is occurring faster than expected, and that delaying action will make future action more costly. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) estimated that climate adaptation costs could reach $21-43 billion annually by 2050.Despite these real and pressing concerns, research stations that studied climate change were being threatened with closure. As a result, last October, I questioned whether the Harper conservative cuts to research were intended to hide the impacts of climate change, as a clear pattern was emerging.The government had admitted to shuttering the arm's-length, independent NRTEE in its omnibus implementation bill because it did not like the advice it was receiving on addressing climate change.Canada's most northerly civilian research station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which gathered atmospheric information related to air quality, climate change, and ozone, was scheduled to cease full-time, year-round operation--despite requiring only $1.5 million to permit its science program.PEARL is, in fact, one of the northernmost research stations in the world, and one of very few that contribute Arctic data to networks of research stations. Without PEARL, there would be no continuous active measurements in the High Arctic of many atmospheric variables that scientists believe greatly affect not only the Arctic, but also, the whole planet.The draconian cut was almost unimaginable, particularly with the discovery of the first large (2,000,000 km2) Arctic ozone hole in 2011, the greatest melting of the Arctic in 2012, and other indications of significant Arctic change.Also, potentially on the chopping block were the 50-year-old Kluane Lake Research Station (KLRS) and the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), which needed only $2 million per year.KLRS is one of Canada's oldest and most celebrated scientific research stations, located in the Yukon adjacent to the largest non-polar ice field in the world. Why did the government make a significant investment in one of the world's most distinctive open-air laboratories without a plan to keep such an important facility operational? Perhaps it was because this sensitive region of multiple ecological zones contains a wealth of animals, glaciers, and plants which make it ideal to observe the impacts of climate changes?Canadians should want to know what happened to thankfully allow both world-renowned research stations, ELA and PEARL, to be saved at the last minute. Did the government have a formal scientific review by experts asking: are the programs of high quality; are the programs work relevant to Fisheries and Oceans' and Environment Canada's core mandates; and are the programs performing leading-edge science? Or was the government simply trying to show to the world that it cares about climate change-mere greenwashing?Canadians should understand that the government has offered PEARL only a reprieve, with funding of $1 million per year over five years. The funding for the newly announced seven grants of $35 million over five years, is $7 million per year for climate science research. But this is only about half of what the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) had been supporting.Moreover, it is one-time funding; the call for proposals was very clear, there will not be another call.The reality is that the government made an opportunistic announcement capitalizing on Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding that in part replaces CFCAS-or in the words of one of Canada's celebrated researchers, an announcement that was "a bit of a fig leaf".The Harper conservatives must understand that science cannot be turned on and off without losing excellence. Maintenance of the PEARL station and its equipment need attention; and the recent partial shutdown due to a lack of funding means there are some gaps in the data.Continuity is needed, and not just "photo-opportunity science" to greenwash Canada's record on climate change.The government will proudly announce again and again that it is building a new High Arctic research station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. However, it will not be operational until 2017, and is located 1,300 kilometres south of PEARL. The government should commit to an open discussion about the many-times announced high Arctic research station that has yet to materialize. Is it in the right place, is the focus right (environmental and resource development issues), and will it even help in providing robust science for decision-making?In closing, Canadians will not be fooled by the government's last minute, greenwashing. Science remains under persistent attack in Canada, after having reached a boiling point last July when thousands of scientists gathered on Parliament Hill to protest the closure of federal science programs, the muzzling of scientists, and the "untimely death of scientific evidence" and evidence-based decision-making in Canada.Dr. Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is a Liberal member of parliament (Etobicoke North, elected 2008 and 2011) and critic for the Environment. She has a Ph.D. in geography (University of Edinburgh, 1992) and has taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor, corporate social responsibility and medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore and is the author of Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus (University of Toronto Press, 2003), and Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future (2008).