Big hole in ozone layer, bigger hole in government policy

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

In 1987, Canada led the world by hosting the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed by  196 nations to ban the use of chemicals known to harm the ozone layer. Now, Canadian scientists aren't even allowed to talk about it.

A report last week in the prestigious journal Nature announced that this year's ozone hole above the Arctic is the largest ever recorded. But when a newspaper reporter asked Canadian scientist Dr. David Tarasick, who was involved in the study, to explain the results, he was prohibited by Environment Canada from speaking to the media about his own work. CBC News Network was similarly turned down when it requested an interview with him.

Also this past week, Scott Vaughn, Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development, and Parliament's environmental watchdog, released a report on the federal government's poor performance in reducing greenhouse gasses, and its failure to properly monitor the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands project.

What has happened?

How has this country turned from a world leader in environmental protection, to one where scientists are forbidden to speak and the government seems to have turned its back on environmental protection?

Muzzling government scientists, especially those working at Environment Canada, is not new.  In fact, journalists from across the country wrote a joint letter to the government, through the Canadian Science Writers Association, to express their frustration over scientists who were either forbidden to speak, or cases where permission was granted too late for the journalist's deadline.

Scientists are our eyes on the planet. Their detailed monitoring of changes to the atmosphere, water, and movements in the ground, give us a window into the complex interplay of the Earth's many systems. They also see how human activity has an effect on those systems and the courses they will take in the future.

Over the long term, the scientists see trends, such as warming temperatures, loss of Arctic sea ice, shifting ocean currents or changes in biology, that are used to make predictions about the type of world our children will inherit.

But scientists can only report what they see.  What happens to those reports is what really counts, and in many cases, the scientific perspective is overshadowed by an economic one.

The Canadian economy is driven, in large part, by the fossil fuel industry, which will only continue to grow. We are an oil-producing country and an oil-consuming country. It will be a challenge to find a balance between the benefits of a profitable industry and its costly negative effects on the environment. But that balance will not come about by turning our scientific eyes blind.