I have a big crush on Canada.
I love the country’s beautiful, unpopulated expanses. I adore its friendly, warm people. My favorite part of watching playoff hockey is hearing the announcers’ Canadian accents. And in general, I thought of the country’s sociopolitical attitudes as falling closer to my own liberal values. I hoped that some of our northern neighbor’s forward thinking on equality and environmental protection might rub off on the United States.
Now, I’ve changed my mind: Canada is in trouble.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, before Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, he wrote a memo calling the Kyoto Protocol – an international agreement to address climate change – a “socialist conspiracy” that was wasting time trying to regulate carbon dioxide, which everyone knows is a nutrient, not a pollutant. Not only did the memo reveal a woeful disregard for scientific knowledge (yes, carbon dioxide is used by plants to grow, but it’s also a potent greenhouse gas emitted by human activity and responsible for climate change), but it foreshadowed Canada’s divestment from the Kyoto objectives in 2007 and, ultimately, withdrawal altogether in December 2011.
By dropping out, Harper and the Conservative government also neatly ducked a series of penalties for failing to meet promises of emissions reductions. And that’s a very good thing, given their unswerving commitment to drilling Alberta’s tar sands.
The tar sands are an economic gold mine in today’s fossil fuel-crazed world, but that’s about all they have going for them. They’re environmentally costly – you’ve got to clear pristine forest and contaminate local groundwater to extract the sludgy bitumen trapped in the geological matrix – and not particularly efficient – the return on investment is about 6 joules of energy out for every 1 input, compared to 15:1 in conventional North American oil production. Plus, by grounding yet another pillar of the Canadian economy in natural resource extraction, they drown out development in other, more sustainable, sectors.
All right, so I might not agree with Canada’s choice to prioritize economy over environment, but it’s the responsibility of that country’s voters to check that decision. So long as they’re properly informed.
That’s the latest worry in Canada, where the government seems happy to pull the curtain over scientific progress whenever it conflicts with its political interests.
In the past year, Canada’s made the news for a series of science policy decisions that suggest scientific discovery – and, worse, honest scientific communication – are low on its priority list.
A year ago, the federal government announced plans to defund several long-term research facilities, including the Experimental Lakes Area (home to landmark discoveries about water pollution that transformed policy around the world) and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (key to understanding changes in high-latitude airspace). The government claimed these closures would save money. Sure: a whopping $3.5 million, less than a twentieth of a percent of an $11 billion Science and Technology budget. The move drew worldwide protest and, as of last week, a promise from the Ontario (Liberal) government to step and temporarily pick up the tab of the Experimental Lakes Area.
More damning, though, are accusations that the government has been muzzling its scientists. The “media protocol” implemented by Harper’s government in 2008 requires government scientists to clear all interview requests with higher-ups before speaking to journalists. Some of these requests are never granted – or are so delayed by the bureaucratic practice that they take the scientists out of the fast-paced media cycle. Furthermore, the protocol also instructs officials to “[ask] the programme expert to respond with approved lines.” That is, to say only what the government wants the people to hear.
As a result, according to a complaint by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, Canadians have lost access to important information about declining fisheries stocks, a new Arctic ozone hole, and a host of other environmental issues. Last month, Canada’s Information Commission finally agreed to investigate the complaint – hopefully before the government’s information cloak completely undermines public debate.
You see, an informed citizen base is the cornerstone of democracy. The work of government scientists is funded by, and should inform, those citizens. When Canada starts cutting corners, it sends an alarming global message about priorities and censorship.
That’s a message that hopefully won’t prove contagious. Yesterday, President Obama issued an executive order insisting that government information be open and highly accessible, traits that he believes strengthen the United States in the long run. Wouldn’t you agree?
Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and open dialogue via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.