Editorial: Environment Canada is melting away

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty wants to balance the federal budget by 2014, and so over the past few months the funding to various government programs has been substantially reduced. More is sure to follow. Improved fiscal control– and the steps needed to achieve it– was an important issue in this year’s federal election. Led by Stephen Harper, the Conservatives won their first majority, so fiscal tightening is important for many Canadians.

Cutting programs is a delicate process. On the one hand, enough must be cut to balance the budget. On the other hand, over-zealous tightening can hurt the economy and possibly the safety of Canadians for years to come. Government cuts, which will result in an estimated 300 job losses with up to almost 800 jobs possibly affected, falls in the latter category.

A number of important services will likely be shut down due to these cuts, ending the important work Canadian scientists do for both our country and the world. And while environment tracking might appear to be a dispensable commodity to some, cuts in funding could result in much greater costs in the future.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has assured Canadians that services provided by Environment Canada will continue to operate at a sufficiently high level. This claim, however, is increasingly questionable as more information becomes available regarding the types of programs facing cuts. For example, earlier this month the science journal Nature published a study reporting unprecedented ozone loss in the Arctic.

Ozone depletion is a serious concern, not only for the safety of humans, but also for the well-being of the planet. What’s remarkable about the Nature study is that scientific models attempting to predict how quickly the ozone hole over the Arctic would grow considerably underestimated how quickly the ozone would deplete. The models were incorrect, but scientists only realized this was true by going out and actually measuring ozone.

More urgent problems can occur from a lack of proper scientific measurement. The volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 caused over a billion dollars in lost revenue due to grounded flights in Europe. If better measurement of the ash cloud existed, however, more flights would have been able to take place. If a similar situation were to occur in Canada, the lack of air-based measurement could have similar damaging results. Air-based measurements, while expensive, also give scientists the ability to quantify the environmental impact of pollution, greenhouse gases and other unknown threats.

These cases are important because the government plans to replace data-gathering with a reliance on modelling. But while models have a place, they can’t replace actually going out and determining what’s actually going on. Without the funding to perform these tasks, it will be impossible to make informed policy decisions. Despite funding cuts, Environment Canada states they will still be able to fulfil their international obligations regarding ozone measurement. While some research stations may be affected, Environment Canada maintains that they will continue to be able to provide accurate measurements.

As Dalhousie atmospheric science professor Thomas Duck stated in an opinions article for The Star, the costs of failing to address environmental problems in the short-term will be much more expensive in the long-term. The “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change” reports that climate change will cost the world between 5 and 20 per cent of its GDP, compared to the less than one per cent cost of making the changes necessary to alleviate those problems. Acting now is therefore a good bet.

Despite the evidence, politics are getting in the way of responsible decision-making. This week Green leader Elizabeth May accused the Harper government of cutting a disproportionate number of jobs related to climate change research. If this is true it’s a serious problem. Governments can’t make informed decisions on climate change– one way or the other– unless researchers are free to investigate its effects.

The case for the government’s bias against climate science research is strengthened by looking at the types of programs that kept their funding. For example, subsidies for the dairy industry were left untouched. The total costs of not addressing environmental problems will be much worse than the costs to some cow farmers if left untouched.

Citizens of all political persuasions should recognize the value of proper environmental study. The benefits more than pay their way.

Correction: A previous edition of this article incorrectly stated that nearly 800 Environment Canada job cuts would take place. In fact, approximately 300 job cuts will occur. Also, the original article stated that ozone measuring stations would almost certainly be shut down. Some stations may be affected, but Environment Canada maintains that ozone data collection in line with international obligations will continue. Sorry.

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