When opinion trumps scientific reason

Or the ideological basis for federal cuts to environmental spending.

The closure of Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (PEARL) has shocked many Canadians. Located at 80°N in the High Arctic on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, PEARL is the northernmost civilian research laboratory in the world. It is internationally recognized for ozone and climate research, and helped discover the first-ever Arctic ozone hole in 2011. PEARL is a Canadian success story that one U.S. government scientist deemed a “national treasure.” Now, many are left wondering why the Canadian government decided to bury that treasure.

As seen in The Mark News.
As seen in The Mark News.

Like most university-based environmental-research programs, PEARL depends upon federal grants to operate. However, in recent years, funding opportunities for projects like PEARL have been narrowed or eliminated. Government support for PEARL’s main sponsor, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences was cut off. Funding that was promised for climate and atmospheric science in the 2011 Federal Budget has been held up for nearly a year. The impact of this funding gap is far from benign. It has forced some of Canada’s best researchers to leave the country to find work. These experts were cultivated in Canada over many years and at great cost. It will take a generation to replace them.

The funding crisis at our universities mirrors the ongoing cutbacks at Environment Canada (EC). In July 2011, the government announced that it would eliminate 776 positions from EC, with 300 staff to be declared surplus. The cuts are undermining important research and monitoring programs in ozone, atmospheric radiation, climate adaptation, environmental toxics, air quality, and airborne research. Canadians depend upon these programs to ensure their environmental security, health, and safety.

How, then, can the government sufficiently defend these cutbacks?

It’s possible that a scientific review conducted by knowledgeable experts could provide the appropriate justification. However, no such review has taken place. At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Canada’s investments in science and technology have produced poor results and are a “significant problem for our country.” Given the lack of expert assessment, however, his comments are without merit: They represent his unscientific opinion, and nothing more. Scientists the world over are lamenting what is happening to Canada’s scientific community.

Canadian governments once understood that good policy is informed by science. In 1988, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives commissioned independent experts to conduct a review of EC’s ozone program. The resulting report (“Measuring the Impacts of Environment Canada’s R&D: Case Study: Stratospheric Ozone Depletion Research,” 1998) stated that for every dollar spent on the program, Canadians received almost $13 in benefits to their health, environment, and economy. Health benefits included the avoidance of over 57,000 cases of skin cancer, 30,000 cases of cataracts, and 625 deaths in Canada over a 60-year period. Unfortunately, the Harper Conservatives have sought to dismantle what the Progressive Conservatives saw worthy of support.

What’s particularly concerning is that the cuts to Canada’s environmental-monitoring programs are not about money. PEARL costs $1.5 million per year to operate, and EC’s ozone program likely costs about $1 million per year. Compare these costs with those of the government’s flagship programs: The budget for purchasing and servicing one F-35 fighter jet ($246 million, based on calculations from numbers given here) would power PEARL half way into the next century. The budget for new prisons ($9.5 billion 1) might have seen PEARL into the next ice age. The cost of gazebos and other perks that were built for Muskoka in the run-up to the G8 meeting of 2010 ($50 million) would have supported EC’s ozone program for the next 50 years. The budget for the War of 1812 celebrations ($28 million) could have supported either program for decades.

If money is not the issue, then why is the Canadian government so bent on making cuts to environmental spending? Harper made this clear last year during a trip to the Arctic, when he opined that environmental concerns cannot be allowed to stand in the way of economic development. This is a dangerous attitude. The economy doesn’t exist independent of the environment. A 1990 report from the United Steelworkers explains it best:2 “The real choice is not jobs or environment. It’s both or neither. What kind of jobs will be possible in a world of depleted resources, poisoned water and foul air, a world where ozone depletion and greenhouse warming make it difficult even to survive?”

Unfortunately, the government has systematically reduced scrutiny of the impacts of its economic and environmental policies by eliminating or crippling important research programs like PEARL. The widespread muzzling of EC scientists has further removed expert opinions from the debate. Clearly, the government cannot protect the future health and safety of Canadians and Canada’s economic viability without reliable information about environmental change. Yet, that is exactly what it is trying to do. It is the triumph of ideology over reason.

Thomas J. Duck: Associate professor, physics and atmospheric science, Dalhousie University; co-founder, Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change.

  1. This Vancouver Sun link was replaced with the copy on canada.com because the original no longer exists.

  2. This link was replaced with a copy from the Wayback Machine. The full reference to the original report is:

    Report of the Task Force on the Environment, “Our Children’s World. Steelworkers and the Environment”, in United Steelworkers of America, Report of the Committee on Future Directions of the Union, 25th Constitutional Convention, Toronto, Canada, August 27-31, 1990.’

    It would appear that the Report was published here. See also here, here and here for what may be sections.

    An updated version of the report, with much of the same text and released in 2006, can be found here.

(Updated 24 September 2015)