14 April 2006

Gag order in Canada

More signs of trouble, and antipathy to science, among the new powers that be in Canada, where the rookie environment minister ordered a government climatologist not to attend his own book launch.

Here are the facts:

Veteran scientist Mark Tushingham is the author of a science-fiction novel, Hotter than Hell, that depicts a world in turmoil thanks to climate change.

Rona Ambrose is a member of the new minority, Conservative government, which was elected with 36 percent of the popular vote three months ago. The same day word came of the gag order, her government announced cuts to "15 research programs related to the Kyoto climate-change protocol and aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases thought to cause global warming."

The government has also made it clear it has no intention of meeting Canada's Kyoto Protocol commitments, although neither does it intend to formally withdraw from the treaty.

From the Toronto Star:
Sandra Buckler, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications director, says the gag order against Tushingham did not come from the top and Harper told reporters yesterday he was in the dark about the incident.

But Harper then added, in a not-so-subtle warning to the public service: "We were elected on a particular platform. Our commitment to the people of Canada is to go ahead with that platform. That will include measures we're going to develop over the next year or so to deal with both pollution and greenhouse gases, and I obviously not only hope but expect that all elements of the bureaucracy will be working with us to achieve those objectives."

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, in an email, said Tushingham's mistake was in billing himself as a government representative, though he only appeared as such on a Canadian Press advisory to the media about the event. Tushingham's book jacket and the promotional materials merely describe him as an Ottawa scientist. Neither Ambrose nor anyone in her department said they had problems with the scientific or any other premises behind the book.

Tushingham was also warned not to speak to reporters and spent much of yesterday in hiding, said his publisher, Elizabeth Margaris, head of DreamCatcher Publishing. Margaris flew into Ottawa from New Brunswick specifically to introduce her author at the luncheon, only to learn upon her arrival that he was not allowed to speak.
As one my friends in Ottawa says, the honeymoon is over. The Prime Minister's Office:
insists that the information chill in Ottawa is more perceived than real — a product of a media culture that got too accustomed to the hyper-availability of former prime minister Paul Martin's regime. Yet in Ottawa, everyone seems to have a story of lips being sealed, communications shut down or thwarted. Bureaucrats are talking about "the new normal" — a world where every utterance to outsiders or journalists can incur the wrath of the new government. Ambrose abruptly cancelled an interview with a national columnist this week after her office had already warned she would not take questions on the issue of the Kyoto accord.
Curiously, it appears that Canada's new right-wing government isn't paying close enough attention to its ideological inspiration south of the border, where initial attempts to gag government climatologists are backfiring.

First it was NASA, where James Hansen had to launch a national media campaign to get the White House to back off efforts to keep him quite. Then it was NOAA, which experienced a similar brief chilling. All is not perfect down here, but when I come across letters like this one from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert to NOAA head Conrad Lautenbacher, I take heart that at least it's not that easy to shut down informed scientific debate.
Dear Admiral Lautenbacher:

I appreciated your call yesterday to discuss the concern we share over the report in The Washington Post describing scientists’ concerns that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is limiting discussion about climate change. I was pleased to hear once again that you support open and unfettered scientific communication, as you have stated in the past both to me and in messages to NOAA employees.
...
the issue of climate change is too important to countenance any scientists feeling intimidated or constrained about discussing the matter, regardless of whether that feeling is the result of specific policy actions or of misimpressions that create a stifling atmosphere.

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