Photo courtesy of Dr. Luke Copland

Environment Canada reports a temperature increase in Canada of more than 1.3°C since 1948. This is about two times the global average. These changes are largely a product of increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, specifically carbon dioxide.

The consequences of global warming are especially drastic at the Earth’s poles. Due to the reflective properties of snow and ice, global warming is amplified in the Arctic, where ice currently melts at unprecedented rates. Loss of frozen surface cover exposes a dark, sunlight-absorbing ocean plane that drives further warming. This feedback mechanism is known as polar amplification.

Evidence of warming

The current status of Canadian epishelf lakes is the best example of accelerated global warming through positive feedback. These lakes form when an ice shelf collides into a fjord, isolating the water there from the rest of the ocean. When this happens, a Such environments allow the water to stratify so that when glacial melt-water enters the lake it does not mix with the saltwater. These lakes are unique to Canada’s Ellesmere Island

The rise in temperature has caused Arctic ice to thin and ice shelves to become vulnerable to cracking. When ice shelves crack, they allow fresh water to seep out of the epishelf lakes and open up opportunities for mixing the lake’s stratified layers.

There were 19 epishelf lakes on Ellesmere Island in 1906, but there is only one left today. These lakes were unique biological environments that were lost in under a century as a direct consequence of human-induced warming. Their disappearance is only one example of the extreme impact our actions have on the Arctic.

Policymakers agree that the temperature increase caused by GHGs should be limited to 2°C above the average pre-indiustrial global temperature. Researchers at University College London (UCL) have calculated that about a third of global oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused between 2010 and 2050 to meet this temperature target.

The Toronto Star reported earlier this year that 75 per cent of oil reserves and 85 per cent of the oil sands in Canada must remain underground to stay within the two-degree margin and noted the ongoing development of a pipeline from Canada’s oil sands to Nebraska. Despite environmental warnings, the pipeline was slated to carry 800 thousand barrels of crude oil per day to the Gulf coast refineries.

Barriers to research

The Canadian government has ambitious plans for national oil resources. Since the Harper government came into power in 2006, efforts appear to have been made to prevent scientific research from reaching Canadians, especially that information that highlights the unsavoury side of industrial development.

As early as 2007, new laws required Environment Canada scientists to first attain permission from the government before speaking to reporters. Oftentimes these requests can take several days to process and government officials may opt to sit in on the interviews.

In March of 2008, the position of National Science Advisor was phased out. The advisor was the link between researchers and government officials, including policy-makers.

In 2013, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) passed a measure prohibiting scientists from sharing their information with a third party barring consent from an official. Research conducted by the DFO is now considered confidential and information cannot be released without consent.

The muzzling of federal scientists was raised as a serious concern at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012. At the meeting, concerned scientists wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing their worries about the repercussions of Conservative media policies.

The impact of these policies does not stop at communication with the press. The government has limited the possibilities for conducting research by eliminating research programs that might contribute to a body of evidence about the pressing issues of climate change.

“This is pretty short sighted as it means that the scientists, and therefore the Canadian government itself, [are] having little input into many important international scientific decisions,” says Dr. Luke Copland, research chair in glaciology at the University of Ottawa. According to Copland, this extends to areas like climate change predictions, pollution regulations, fisheries, and others.

In 2012, five of Canada’s ten laser illuminated detection and ranging (LiDAR) stations were closed. These stations monitored ozone and other air pollutant levels, which not only have consequences for global climate but for the health of Canadians.

Funding has been cut to various organizations and agencies monitoring carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in Canada such as the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), which worked with the government and businesses towards sustainable development policies, such as introducing the carbon tax.

The impact extends not only to federally funded researchers, but also has repercussions for university students and researchers. Professor Rowan Sage at the University of Toronto explained that, in the life sciences, two types of funding are available through NSERC: discovery research and applications-oriented work.

Applications-oriented work requires a partner who is often in the private sector and looking for research that would be valuable to them. Discovery research programs have recently suffered budget cuts, however, and grants are more difficult to get.

“The funding levels are simply too low,” says Sage.  “Private firms are typically not interested in the next big thing unless clear feasibility is demonstrated, and this typically requires a lot of additional research following the initial discovery,” he adds.

Ultimately, research is stifled. “With the low grant size of the discovery program, and a professor’s need to also support the basic research of the lab, the applications development following a discovery can be slow, and is often still-born,” Sage explains.

Some researchers turn to the US or Europe in search of collaborators, which results in their intellectual property leaving the country. “As a result, Canada often loses out on the development of the critical discoveries that are generated at our universities by Canadians using Canadian funds,” Sage says.

The government argues that these policies are meant to ensure that only the most accurate information reaches Canadians, and this screening process ensures the accuracy and relevance of scientific findings communicated to the public. However, it appears that the policies have established a filtering process that restricts climate research from taking place and makes it very difficult to inform the public about the severe impact of resource extraction.

On February 27, the Government of Canada announced an open-access policy for research. Now Canadians will have free access to research by the three federally funded agencies in Canada: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Although the open-access policy creates opportunities for Canadians to learn about scientific findings through reading journal articles, the media still remains the main avenue for effectively communicating research. The media makes scientific information accessible to Canadians who do not have a background in science. This is why the government gag on federally-funded researchers remains a problem.

The climate warming over the last century has been caused and largely accelerated by human-induced emissions of GHGs. Our dependence on fossil fuels has dire consequences for both the climate and the environment, and these consequences are irreversible. As temperature goes up, Arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, epishelf lakes melt, and ecosystems are destroyed. Given the residence times of GHGs in the atmosphere, these effects have lingering impacts long into the future.

According to Environment Canada, there has been an 80 per cent drop in the coverage of global warming since the Conservative science communication ban. In the face of a changing climate and with ever-increasing environmental concerns, the lack of conversation on the subject grows ever more concerning — with the growing silence coming at the expense of all Canadians.

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