Muzzled scientists: The challenge of reporting on climate change in Canada
By Alexandra Theodorakidis
On November 6, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) held an online chat, The Chill in Canada’s Climate Science, to discuss the growing issue of climate change scientists being muzzled by the Canadian government.
Moderated by CJFE’s executive director, Tom Henheffer, the event was held as part of the global campaign for the International Day to End Impunity. The two panelists for the discussion were Raveena Aulakh, environment reporter at the Toronto Star, and Tom Duck, a leading atmospheric scientist. The panelists discussed the increase in censorship that scientists working for the federal government face and the challenge this poses to informing the Canadian public of crucial scientific matters that affect them, such as risks posed by climate change.
Duck said the current inability of scientists to discuss their research stems from a communications policy change made by the Harper government in 2007, in order to enforce tighter controls on interviews with Environment Canada scientists. In 2010, it was reported that media coverage of climate change had been reduced by 80 per cent. This is the result of federal scientists being forced to seek approval before speaking with reporters, including approval to written responses.
According to Aulakh, Environment Canada will also hide information, such as statistics on climate change, in the depths of its website; the information is technically present, but highly difficult for journalists to find, especially when working to a deadline. Responses to questions usually come in the form of emailed responses or interviews that are monitored and directed by a media relations representative.
Aulakh said she believes Environment Canada’s goal is to frustrate journalists to the point where they give up and abandon their stories. Duck added that it would seem the Canadian government is trying to “change the channel on the environment” by restricting information.
While Duck pointed out there were incidents of scientists being muzzled before 2007, he said he believes those were isolated events; the current government has made it the norm.
Oil sands, greenhouse gases and the economic agenda
Both Aulakh and Duck pointed to the example of Alberta’s oilsands as a reason for the federal government to want to muzzle its scientists. “When reporters write stories about studies that indicate the oil sands are…responsible for adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, it makes the government and the economic agenda look particularly bad,” said Aulakh.
Further proving the point that the federal government does not want the Alberta oilsands linked to emissions of greenhouse gases is the Canadian Revenue Agency’s (CRA’s) audit of 10 environmental charities. Several of the charities have spoken out, saying they believe the audits are being conducted on complaints filed by Ethical Oil, a pro-oilsands, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. Ethical Oil began as a blog set up by Alykhan Velshi, currently director of issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office. The complaint made by Ethical Oil was that by speaking out against the oilsands, these charities were conducting political activity, prompting the CRA to “determine if they have crossed the line between public and political advocacy.” Charities being audited include The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada and Environmental Defence.
Aulakh and Duck both argued that the message the federal government is sending through these audits is, “do not discuss the oil sands and their link to greenhouse gases.”
Risks to scientists
Most federal scientists are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. By creating a culture of fear, the government is guaranteeing most Canadians will remain ignorant on many issues related to climate change. A survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 90 per cent of federal government scientists do not feel they can speak freely to the media and that “faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86 per cent) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.” Almost three-quarters of the scientists surveyed found that the restrictive policies of the Canadian government have inhibited Canada’s ability to create effective laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence.
Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is currently investigating the federal government’s policies on scientists and the media after complaints that they are too restrictive and delay the release of vital information to the public.
Aulakh recalled speaking with a former scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont., who said scientists there were told on multiple occasions not to speak with reporters about the work being conducted. According to Duck, even some non-federal-government scientists are afraid to speak out, as their funding comes from the Canadian government.
Effect on Canadians
Duck argued that by censoring information, the government is preventing Canadians from “fully exercising their democratic rights.” An editorial published in the New York Times in 2013 called the current policies of the Canadian government not just an attack on academic freedoms, but “an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.”
As a journalist, Aulakh said she has seen no progress on this issue, and if anything the situation is getting worse. Scientists want to discuss their research but are increasingly restricted by the federal government. Duck said he believes Canadians need to demand accountability and transparency from their government. Aulakh echoed this sentiment by saying Canadians need to support the environmental charities that are “sticking their necks out.”
The conversation ended with both participants saying a national conversation is needed on climate change, but that cannot happen when scientists are muzzled and environmental organizations are under threat.
To read the full live chat, click here.
Alexandra Theodorakidis is a former CJFE intern and current freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @AlexandraTheo.