Stephen Harper’s Environment Minister Casts Doubt on Climate Change

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s environment minister is casting doubt about scientific observations of melting summer sea ice in Canada’s north.

In a short televised interview on CTV’s daily political show, Power Play, Leona Aglukkaq suggested the scientific observations were not as important as the Harper government’s priorities in its new role as chair of a group of Arctic nations.

“There was a report that came out yesterday, I have not received a copy of that but there’s always a debate around science and what’s changing,” Aglukkaq told the host, Don Martin, in the interview which aired on Wednesday. “But I think what’s really important during our chairmanship that I want to bring forward to the international Arctic council regions is that Arctic people, people that live in the Arctic become experts and are engaged in that.”

Aglukkaq’s office was not immediately able to say which report she was referring to during the interview. It was also unable to explain what debate she was referring to or offer any scientific evidence in support of her comments.

Since her appointment in July, her office has failed to respond directly to questions from Postmedia News asking whether she believes scientific evidence justifies further action to stop the causes of climate change and adapt to its impacts.

In the CTV interview, Aglukkaq appeared to be reluctant to speak about climate change, correcting herself after almost using those words to describe her participation at a recent conference in Oslo, Norway of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.

“I was in Oslo, just recently at the climate ch- ah climate conference, ah environment ministers conference, sorry,” she said toward the end of the interview.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of scientists and governments from around the world, has just published the first volume of its latest assessment of scientific evidence about global warming observations and its causes.

This report said that “human influence has been detected in the warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes.”

The assessment, approved by virtually all governments around the world, including the Harper government, said that human activity, mainly through greenhouse gases released from the consumption of fossil fuels as well as deforestation and other land-use changes, had “very likely contributed to Arctic sea ice loss since 1979.”

This July 4, 2012 file photo provided by Ian Joughin shows surface melt water rushing along the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. (AP Photo/Ian Joughin)

Aglukkaq’s department, Environment Canada, has predicted that the planet will warm faster than the consensus view reached by the panel, projecting average global temperature increases of at least of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a federal advisory panel established by the government of former prime minister Brian Mulroney with a mandate to bring together business and environmental interests, predicted that doing nothing about climate change could cost the Canadian economy up to $43 billion in losses per year by 2050 due to impacts of global warming. The panel also said governments could find economic opportunities by promoting a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy as part of an emerging green economy sector, estimated to be worth about $3 trillion by 2020.

The advisory panel, which had a $5 million annual budget, was shut down by the Harper government a few months after it produced its economic analysis and its Internet website was later erased. The panel’s reports moved over to Library and Archives Canada.

When asked if she had personally observed changes in the Canada’s north, Aglukkaq, who represents the riding of Nunavut in Parliament, sighed before saying it was “debatable” while explaining that she had observed different weather conditions over the past summer.

Martin followed up by asking if that indicated a changing climate if not climate change, prompting Aglukkaq to laughed and say: “But it’s also important to look at science and use science to make our decisions as best as we can and but to also continue to work with people in the north.”

Data compiled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, revealed that summer Arctic sea ice in 2013 was more than one million square kilometres below the average observed between 1981 and 2010.

A graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing recent observations about summer Arctic sea ice.

Aglukkaq also said the environment was important to people in the Arctic since they continue to depend on wildlife to feed their families.

“So it’s important for us to continue to protect our water and our land and our air because we depend on the background that feeds us. So I think my new role here fits in very well and I’ve said many times, that I come from a unique part of Canada. I grew up living off the land and I bring a different perspective to this file, I think, given that I come from an environment and culture that, to this day, depends on the land.”

Other members of Harper’s cabinet have also openly questioned scientific evidence about climate change, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who promoted Canada’s oilsands industry in an April interview by suggesting that scientists had “recently told us that our fears (about climate change) were exaggerated.”

At the time, Oliver was also unable to name the scientists or research, supporting that statement.

A few months ago, Aglukkaq, then as health minister, took over chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council, signing a statement that recognized the planet was facing an “urgent need” to reach a legally-binding deal to prevent human activity from causing average global warming of more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

This statement expressed concerns that global greenhouse gas emissions were “resulting in rapid changes in the climate and physical environment of the Artic with widespread effects for societies and ecosystems and repercussions around the world.”

In internal briefing notes from the summer of 2012, Environment Canada said that Canadians were experiencing greater warming than most other regions of the world, with an average temperature increase of 1.6 degrees Celsius in 50 years.

“Climate change is the most serious environmental issue facing the world today and carries with it significant impacts on human health and safety, the economy, natural resources, and ecosystems in Canada and throughout the world,” said the briefing notes, prepared for Bob Hamilton, the department’s deputy minister. “There is also increasing recognition that natural resources are an important component of economic growth, along with physical and human capital, and that environmental damage and natural resource degradation can have important economic costs.”

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission