One of the strongest hurricanes in recent memory slams into the east coast. A journalist on deadline phones up the Canadian Meteorological Service on its 24-hour hotline for a quote. The weather forecaster the journalist reaches is gregarious and knowledgeable—that is, until the journalist asks whether the recent hurricane can in any way be linked to the carbon emissions us humans pump unceasingly into the atmosphere. “It’s not appropriate for me to answer that,” the forecaster replies.
The exact details of this exchange are hypothetical. But the strict rules preventing Environment Canada weather forecasters from speaking about climate change are not. “Our Weather Preparedness Meteorologists are experts in their field of severe weather and speak to this subject,” a federal spokesperson recently explained to investigative reporter Mike De Souza. “Questions about climate change or long-term trends would be directed to a climatologist or other applicable authority.”
Which seems reasonable enough, right? Well, until you consider the chain of events leading up to this latest revelation. Not long after Stephen Harper was first elected as Prime Minister in 2006, his Conservative government began restricting the access of senior federal scientists to journalists. Such scientists were now required to get permission from their political superiors before answering a media request. “Our scientists are very frustrated,” reads a leaked Environment Canada document.
That document also noted media coverage of climate science in Canada had, by 2010, dropped 80 percent since the restrictions came in. “Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” it read. “They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media.” That opinion is shared by the scientific journal Nature, which in 2012 urged the Harper government “to set its scientists free.”
The situation hasn’t gotten any better since then. In fact, it may be getting even worse. “Rather than relenting under public scrutiny,” read a report this spring from the non-profit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, which tracks in detail the Harper government’s apparent “muzzling” of scientists: “It seems that restrictions and the pace of cutbacks have only increased.” The report could cite “little evidence that conditions have improved since the first few accounts of muzzling in 2006.”
Which brings us right up to this week’s government revelation about Environment Canada weather forecasters. These meteorologists are among the few government experts granted relatively unrestricted access to the media. A 24-hour hotline allows journalists working on deadline to reach them directly without political supervision. So long, though, as such weather forecasters only “speak to their area of expertise,” the feds have now clarified, which means absolutely no discussion of climate change.
You might suppose these forecasters have important things to say about the climate. Especially given their expertise in the severe weather that fanned wildfires across Quebec, for example, or put Calgary underwater. Instead, to learn of potential links between such extreme events and climate change, journalists must contact a federal climate expert, and thus enter the “Byzantine” world of public relations described by Nature, where “message control” trumps “the free flow of scientific knowledge.”
Weather forecasters fear that speaking about climate change could even limit their careers. Or so suggested a 2013 survey of federal scientists. “With Meteorology we are in a somewhat unique position in that our availability to the media is relatively unrestricted,” one scientist told Environics Research. “We do have to be careful what we say and keep it to the weather however. I outright refuse to answer climate questions. It is an issue fraught with too many traps. Could be career limiting.”
The irony is weather forecasters are more likely than climate scientists to downplay links between extreme weather and global warming. A fascinating 2010 survey of American TV meteorologists suggested only one-third think humans are the main cause of climate change. The Weather Channel founder has even described such a conclusion as “the greatest scam in history.” Since it’s hard enough to predict next week’s weather, many meteorologists are skeptical of longer-term projections.
So when the US government released a landmark report this month on the looming risks of climate change, President Barack Obama did eight interviews with TV meteorologists to defend it. “If you want to try to side with the polluters and argue to the American public that climate change is not happening—today, tomorrow, and certainly in the future—that's going to be a losing argument,” White House advisor John Podesta told reporters at the National Climate Assessment’s release.
Now contrast that with Canada, where Prime Minister Harper rarely, if ever, mentions climate change, makes federal scientists obtain permission to talk about it, and bars its own weather forecasters outright from the subject. “Scientists should be allowed to speak openly about their research or anything else because they are people,” young Canadian scientist Stephen Buranyi wrote last year in VICE. People, that is, with the same right to free speech all other Canadians ostensibly enjoy.