Canada Bars Its Meteorologists From Mentioning Climate Change

Pipelines carrying steam to wellheads and heavy oil back in Alberta, Canada Todd Korol/Reuters

Just weeks after President Obama made on-air appearances with meteorologists explicitly to address climate change, a journalist learned that in Canada, official policy dictates that government-employed meteorologists aren't supposed to talk about climate change at all.

Government scientists "speak to their area of expertise," a government spokesman recently wrote to journalist Mike DeSouza defending the policy. "For example, our Weather Preparedness Meteorologists are experts in their field of severe weather and speak to this subject. Questions about climate change or long-term trends would be directed to a climatologist or other applicable authority."

Meteorologists are, by definition, not as qualified as climate scientists to speak analytically about climate change. But in Canada, the news that they are barred from discussing the subject with journalists adds to what the scientific journal Nature described as a government-mandated freeze on the "free flow of scientific knowledge."

Meteorologists are among the most often-quoted government experts in Canadian news reports, and the federal department they belong to, Environment Canada, estimates that half of all media inquiries are directed at them. A special 24-hour hot line makes meteorologists directly available to journalists, whereas most federal scientists must seek official permission to speak with journalists and in some cases must have their written responses approved by their political superiors, a process that has been criticized in Canadian press as "muzzling."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has come under fire for its apparent hostility toward climate change coverage since he took office in 2006. In 2007, his administration enacted the rules that control government scientists' interviews with journalists, and a leaked Environment Canada document showed that the agency noticed a significant drop in discussion of climate change in the press by 2010.

"Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high profile media, who often have same-day deadlines," the document read. "Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 percent."

Meanwhile, environmental activists allege that they are under undue scrutiny by the Harper administration in an attempt to silence them. Seven influential environmental organizations were the subject of audits by the Canada Revenue Agency earlier this year, as decisions about two tar sands pipelines, including the Keystone XL, which would bring oil south from Alberta, loomed large.

Canadian tar sands are the third-largest oil reserve in the world, and production has spiked over the past decade, from about 700,000 barrels per day in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2013, according to InsideClimate News.

Harper is a major proponent of tar sands production, and from 2012 to 2013, his administration doubled its pro–tar sands advertising budget. Harper's differences with Obama on the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline have been on display in recent months, and climate change is at the very center of the debate: Producing and processing the sticky, thick tar sands oil generates approximately 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil used in the U.S. The unconventional oil is difficult to extract, and mining for it uses up a whopping one-fifth as much energy as it produces, according to a report by the nonprofit Post Carbon Institute.