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Are climate scientists being left out in the cold?

Are you a climate scientist? We want to hear from you. Fill out our Climate Science Funding Survey here. Submissions close on April 2nd, 2019.
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A person stands in the arctic beneath a sunny sky.
Photo by Dan Weaver

Without any dedicated source of funding for their research there is no clear future for Canada’s climate scientists.

In an Ipsos poll of Canadians last December, 75% of the population agreed that the country has an obligation to lead on climate change globally. The Canadian government has historically made significant investments in climate science research, including $118 million awarded to 160 projects between 2002 and 2013, through the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, and over the past five years a further $35 million to seven large projects through the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research (CCAR) program. These projects have been varied and geographically disparate, from the depths of the Labrador sea, where the VITALS project has been monitoring the uptake and storage of carbon dioxide with autonomous underwater gliders, to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) on Ellesmere Island, 4,000 km north of Toronto, deep in the Arctic, where scientists have been using lasers, drones, satellites and weather balloons to monitor the atmosphere.

Ambitious plans to expand Canada’s satellite capabilities are outlined in the recently released space strategy and the 2019 budget has earmarked funds to carry out essential repairs and maintenance at the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere Island. However, there is currently no further funding dedicated for the projects that CCAR supported. Six of the seven CCAR projects are already without support and funding for PEARL will come to an end in September, when scientists will have to cease their monitoring activities and leave the Arctic.

While the government has made numerous investments in science over the past two years, there has been a shift in its focus. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Advancing Climate Change Science in Canada program will provide $4.8 million for research to advance innovation in energy efficient cooling technologies, knowledge of the role of forests and trees in climate impacts and resilience as well enhancing natural carbon sinks to store excess carbon emissions. But, there is no funding set aside for climate science. Academic researchers rely primarily on Tri-council competitive grant programs and there are no new requests for proposals or open competitions for grants with a remit to conduct climate science.

An NSERC evaluation of the CCAR program back in 2016 recommended its continuation, but it took an advocacy campaign in 2018 to secure temporary funding for just one CCAR project. Now, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has heard how important climate science is from their stakeholders. Initial results from a consultation being undertaken by ECCC, to inform its ‘National Climate Change Science and Knowledge Plan’ has found that the top three science priorities according to participants in their survey were ‘Vulnerability and Adaptation’, ‘Climate Forcings in the Earth System’ (aka climate drivers or factors that change the heat of the climate) and ‘Climate-Observing Systems’, with the combined responses to the latter two priorities outstripping ‘Vulnerability and Adaptation’ by approximately 30%.

There is good news for those scientists who rely on climate-observing systems in Exploration, Imagination, Innovation: A New Space Strategy for Canada. The Canadian Space Agency is placing a premium on studying “the impact of climate change on Earth’s atmosphere” by building upon the success of the eleven year old RADARSAT-2 satellite to conduct vital monitoring:

“Of the 50 Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) identified by the World Meteorological Organization to monitor climate change, 26 can only be observed effectively from space. The Government will actively explore the development of additional climate change science and monitoring missions to ensure the continued provision of those data. Canada will soon launch a new “constellation” of satellites, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM), that will provide unprecedented near-real-time data to allow for important evidence-based decision making in response to the changing climate and security threats.”

Even though we know climate change is happening, it is clear that there is a need for continued research and support for scientists on the ground. The Space Strategy has pledged “open data policies and investments in infrastructure needed to process, analyze and distribute data”. And yet, no matter how important Earth observation is to climate research, there also needs to be a commitment to the atmospheric, oceanographic and terrestrial measurements that are required to validate space-based monitoring.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned us of the pressing need to take action, with “only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C” and with dramatic changes currently predicted “Arctic winter temperatures increase by three to five degrees by 2050” as a result of greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere. It is more important than ever to continue studying the atmosphere, particularly in the Canadian North.

Though the Canadian government is undoubtedly directing money towards dealing with climate change, it appears the scientists on the ground, and at sea, measuring the atmosphere and monitoring changes in the oceans, have been left out in the cold.

Here at Evidence for Democracy we are carrying out a research project to identify the state of climate science in Canada. To elicit the views of the community we have launched the Climate Science Funding Survey to gather evidence of the specific needs of climate scientists, and to further our understanding of Canada’s approach to tackling the changing climate.


Photo by Dan Weaver



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