If you follow the news in Canada, you may mistakenly be under the impression that climate change is not as pressing an issue as it was five years ago. Unfortunately, it is. However, since 2007, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been using a variety of control tactics to carefully craft and restrict the things that the media learns about his government. One of those tactics includes muzzling government scientists by preventing them from speaking to the media about the research that they are doing and their findings. The result: there has been an 80% reduction in media coverage of climate change issues since 2007.
Last year, as part of Right to Know Week, Kathryn O’Hara explained how the Harper government, which ran on a platform of transparency and accountability, has been muzzling government scientists and how the openness they promised “is being held ransom to media messages that serve the government’s political agenda.” O’Hara went on to explain the problem further:
The signs were there in spring last year, when press reports revealed that climate scientists in the government department Environment Canada were being stymied by Harper’s compulsive message control. Our researchers were prevented from sharing their work at conferences, giving interviews to journalists, and even talking about research that had already been published. 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. This is not a government that is comfortable with climate change or the implications for action, as its largely obstructionist stance at climate talks has shown.
This is only one example of many where federal government scientists have been prevented from speaking to the press. So it is no wonder that this week, when Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick was given a rare opportunity for a highly supervised and controlled conversation with the media about his work, that he took the opportunity to share his opinions frankly. Tarasick works in atmospheric monitoring and was advised this summer that his job could be cut or that funds could be taken away from their monitoring work. Tarasick explained that:
If the taxpayer in his infinite wisdom were to give me 10 times the budget I have now, I think I could use all that money quite usefully and do good science with it. I don’t think we’re wasting a penny . . . Could we get by on less money? Well, we could do less with less money. We could do more with more money.
According to Postmedia News, officials at Environment Canada tried to limit the topics of discussion prior to the interview with Tarasick, saying that he would not answer questions about potential cuts to the ozone monitoring network. Additionally, according to Environment Canada, spokeswoman Renee David intervened and tried to prevent Tarasick from answering some questions during the interview. When Tarasick was asked about the government’s previous efforts to keep him from speaking about his work, she said: “David is here and available to speak to you now, so I think that’s kind of a moot point.” However, Tarasick chose to answer the question, adding “Well I’m available when media relations says I’m available. I have to go through them.”
Canada already has a poor reputation as a result of its inaction on climate change. Muzzling government scientists isn’t going to change that reputation, but it may legitimately hinder the public’s ability to be engaged in the process of reducing harm, both through personal action and through their votes.
Photo credit: yoshiffles on flickr