Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Harper's contempt for Science and Canadian values

One of the fundamental differences between the previous Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and the current Harper Conservatives (Reform-Alliance Party; i.e. CRAP) has been the complete abandonment of progressive environmental policies and investment in the basic sciences.

First, let us consider what Mulroney did in his two-terms that has lead some environmentalists to call him the "greenest Prime Minister" in Canadian history.
  • In 1987, the Tories helped establish "The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer".  The global treaty placed a ban on the destructive CFCs that were destroying the ozone layer and jeopardizing life on this planet.  
  • Acid rain pollution was dramatically curtailed through cooperative legislation with the Americans.  
  • A moratorium on fishing Cod, which twenty years later has yet to recover
  • At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations Environment Programme was championed by Canada, and Canadians served as their leaders.

Whereas, Mulroney could be considered the high-water mark in environmental protection, the Harper government without any doubt is about as low and dirty as a clogged drainage pipe.

Plenty of people have talked of the Conservative's fealty to market based approaches, which is vaguely strange given that the current Prime Minster has never held a real job or career outside politics; his Finance Minister Jim Flahery was a motor vehicle accident and personal injury litigation lawyer (aka Ambulance chaser); and key Minsters Peter MacKay, Tony Clement, John Baird, and Jason Kenney have spent much of their adult lives as professional politicians.  So having established that none of these men has any experience in actually running anything but their mouths off, on the tax payers dime, it is less than obvious why anyone would believe that they understand what they are doing when it comes to making decisions about science funding in the public's interest.

Stephen Harper's desire to constantly control the message and limit the information that reaches the public has become legendary.  Like the Republican Party under George W. Bush, Harper has fought to manipulate the press and machinations within the government to serve his exclusive political goals.  The influence and taint of lobbyists peddling preferred laws, as it is done in Washington DC, is now the norm in his majority government.  Legislation is proudly rammed through parliament without adequate review or discussion from opposition parties or committee members input.  Through this unsightly metamorphosis into a corporate state, impediments such as empirical data, scientific facts, and international treaties to protect the environment have been removed.

Harper has pursued a global embargo on the speech of research scientists affiliated with the Government of Canada for the past few years.  For example, prominent scientists have been barred from granting interviews, providing opinions to the public on their subject of expertise, or discussing  their publications at conferences.  Environment Canada prevented  Dr. David Tarasick from "published findings about one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic."  Similarly, Kristi Miller was prevented from discussing her research into  a virus that might be killing British Columbia's wild sockeye salmon, despite her research being published in the journal Science.  An article in the scientific journal Nature further illustrates the problem:
Carefully researched reports intended for the public — Climate Change and Health, from Health Canada, and Climate Change Impacts, from Natural Resources Canada — were released without publicity, late on Friday afternoons, and appeared on government websites only after long delays.
The government demands that any information provided to the public must be vetted and cleared with a local propaganda officer from the Conservative party.

Science that offends the sensibilities of religious fundamentalists, the same group that makes up Harper's western base, is also edited from public disclosure.
When Scott Dallimore, a geoscientist for Natural Resources Canada in Sidney, British Columbia, reported evidence of the colossal flood that occurred in northern Canada at the end of the last ice age (Nature 464, 740–743; 2010), he was put through the message-moulding machine. As a result, Canada's taxpayers, who funded the research, were left in the dark. While the news broke elsewhere, journalists in Canada who had previously had open access to Dallimore, a gifted communicator, were left spinning their wheels while deadlines passed. The flood happened 13,000 years ago, so how can this work be construed as politically sensitive?
Recently, the Harper government changed the laws so that not-for-profit groups that engage in political criticism are penalized to prevent them for so-called abusing their registered charitable status.

The nearly paranoid and conspiratorial nature of these acts, stems from the Conservative's desire to prevent any information that may run counter to their pro-corporate or religious minded policies from reaching the public and interfering with their program.

It is not just the message that Conservatives loath; it is the scientists that accumulate all these facts that make Conservative-backers so angry with the fact-based world.  Over the past year, the Harper government has engaged in a systematic withdrawal of funding for Environment Canada projects and the scientists involved in those research projects.  A student researcher at the University of  Toronto discusses his perspective:
Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that are leaving it without any real scientific or research power. We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized.
Given that public funding is the main source of revenue for environmental sciences at Canadian universities, which has now evaporated, researchers are packing up and leaving Canada en mass.

In 2011-12 Environment Canada had its budget cut by 20% to 854 million dollars.   Eleven percent of the department personnel was cut last year, with a total of 776 employees told that their jobs may be terminated.  Those affected include engineers, meteorologists, scientists, chemists, and biologists. Given the extent of previous cuts imposed by previous budgets, the department is said to be barely functioning.  Treasury Board Minister, Tony Clement (aka Mr. hundred thousand dollar Gazebo),  facetiously told reporters that “Environment Canada is open for business, they’re doing their job, and they want to do it more efficiently.”

Canada was a pioneer in ozone monitoring technologies, which "led to the discovery that the world's ozone layer was dangerously thinning in the 1970s, which in turn led to the successful Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances."  The internationally renowned ozone monitoring network, has about one-third of the ozone monitoring stations in the Arctic region. The data produced by this network is heavily relied on by scientists around the world.  A single person was running the entire archives, until the conservatives closed down the The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut.

Not convinced at stopping the flow of information, eliminating the funding of  researchers, and closing down research stations, the conservatives have decided to destroy Arctic ice core bores that provide evidence of the atmospheric gaseous concentrations for thousands of years.  Mark Twickler, director of the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colo said, “These ice cores are so valuable that the international community, including the U.S., will do whatever we have to to preserve these remarkable archives of past climate.”

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is undergoing a similar budget slashing process. Budget cuts have lead to the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area. The program used a region of 58 freshwater lakes near Kenora, in western Ontario, where scientists conducted experiments on the effects of pollution.
The Environmental Lakes Area program was launched in 1968 and led to important discoveries about the effects of pollutants such as phosphates in household detergents and mercury on bodies of fresh water, prompting tighter regulation in Canada and the U.S.
Researchers from across the world are claiming disbelief at the action.  Harvard University aquatic sciences professor Elsie Sunderland said:
[she] was pretty shocked... This is one of the foremost research projects and places to do research in the world. To have it shut down is just appalling. It's just embarrassing. 
Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said  she "was stunned".  Jim Elser an aquatic ecologist at Arizona State University said in an article in the journal Nature,  titled "Canada's renowned freshwater research site to close," that it was "completely shocking".  Elser said it was equivallent to the "U.S. government shutting down Los Alamos — its most important nuclear-physics site — or taking the world's best telescope and turning it off."

In a separate incident, 625 prominent scientists have written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and warned him not to "gut fish-habitat protections they say would put species at risk and damage Canada’s international standing."  The legislation being implemented as part of the Fisheries Act in Bill C-38, the omnibus budget bill, would eliminate components of federal law that bans activity that results in "harmful" alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.  The new law consists of a  prohibition against activity that results in "serious" harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery, or any fish that supports one of those three fisheries.

David Schindler, ecology professor at the University of Alberta said the “pro-development” Conservative government was determined to abrogate long standing environmental protections.  Others are equally pessimistic of Harper's infringement on established environmental protections and resource management:
Nick Dulvy, a Simon Fraser University professor who worked formerly as a fisheries scientist in the British government, said the two moves add to his growing alarm about the Harper government's "misuse" of science.
Hannah McKinnon of the Climate Action Network Canada (CAN Canada), an environmental NGO, made the comparison between funding essential scientific research that monitors the health of the nation versus providing 2-billion dollars to build ships for the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard and another 29 billion dollars allocated in a non-competitive and rigged bid for 65 F-35 fighter jets that don't even meet the Department of Defense's own minimal specifications.  The government can find billions of dollars to spend on pet projects, fighting Middle Eastern wars, and providing billions in subsidies to petrochemical companies -some of which are the most profitable in the world- yet it can't find the funds to monitor the environment or maintain reasonable scientific competency.

John Bennett, the executive director of Sierra Club Canada, puts it more bluntly, “It will give the polluters what they want, a toothless Environment Canada with no scientific or enforcement capability."

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