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CANADA: Information Cleansing, Canadian Style

by Bill BerkowitzInter Press Service
August 16th, 2006

If you're a teacher, student, journalist or just a plain concerned citizen interested in finding well-researched documentation about climate change, you can no longer depend on the Canadian government to supply that information.

According to Canada's Liberal Party, since early July, the country's government -- under conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- has been systematically scrubbing its websites of information regarding global warming and the Kyoto Protocol treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

(As of Wednesday, Aug. 16, when you visit the government of Canada's Climate Change website, http://www.climatechange.gc.ca/, you find the following message: "The Government of Canada Climate Change site is currently unavailable.")

Despite its relatively short time in office, the Harper government has been repeatedly accused of following the lead of the George W. Bush administration in the United States.

Now, it appears it has taken up the Bush administration's habit of mixing science and politics by purposefully expunging information from federal websites dealing with climate change and its ramifications. In addition, in designing its new "Made in Canada" plan to deal with the environment and global warming -- a plan due to be unveiled in October -- government officials are working in secrecy and without significant participation from environmental organisations.

Harper's scepticism about global warming seems in line with the position of Pres. Bush, who has repeatedly claimed that the "jury is still out" on the issue. The prime minister has himself questioned the science of climate change, calling it a "controversial hypothesis."

His former environment critic, Bob Mills, has described the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to address climate change, which had been ratified by Canada's parliament during the previous government, "a great socialist plot."

According to a statement issued in late July by the Liberal Party, the Harper team "is engaging in revisionist science by systematically removing references to climate change from government websites."

"This is a government in denial about climate change," said Liberal Environment Critic Hon. John Godfrey. "They don't like the science, and now they want to censor it. This is Orwellian."

MP Mark Holland pointed out that the Harper "government is tied closely to leading climate change sceptics in the United States and the petroleum industry. This government has a track record of listening to people with dubious views on the environment and climate change. They pretend to be interested in a 'Made in Canada' approach, but this is code for doing nothing."

"The feds' own climate change site once offered a verbose, but realistic analysis of the problem [of global warming] and a high-minded, but unconvincing account of what the government was doing about it," wrote Richard Littlemore in a commentary posted in mid-July at DeSmogBlog.com.

"Never mind removing a reference to Kyoto; the words 'climate change' have been expunged from everything except the website title," maintained Littlemore, a journalist, speechwriter and senior counsellor at James Hoggan & Associates, a Canadian public relations firm.

"The government's strategy of pretending to be concerned about the environment while both dismantling programs to address climate change and scrubbing government websites clean of any information proving that global warming exists has Frank Luntz written all over it," added Liberal Party MP Mark Holland.

Luntz, who met with Harper and his conservative colleagues earlier this year, is a high-profile political pollster and strategist, who has helped shape the U.S. Republican Party's political agenda and messaging for more than a decade. The New Yorker magazine's Hendrik Hertzberg recently described Luntz as the "Johnny Appleseed of such linguistic innovations as 'death tax' for estate tax and 'personal accounts' for Social Security privatization."

One section of an infamous 2002 Luntz-authored memorandum, instructing Republican congressional candidates, was titled "Winning the Global Warming Debate: An Overview." Luntz advised candidates to "continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

He maintained that "The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science... The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."

Ironically, while the Bush administration, and the Harper government, may still be sticking with this script, Luntz appears to have changed his mind on global warming. In a recent documentary first aired on the BBC, Luntz said that he "think[s] most people would conclude that there is global warming taking place, and that the behaviour of humans is affecting the climate."

When asked about the advice about climate change that he had been giving for years, Luntz said it was fair when he gave it. He added that if the Bush administration is still questioning the science, "That's up to the [them]. I'm not the administration. What they want to do is their business. And it's nothing to do with what I write. And it's nothing to do with what I believe."

The Liberal Party's press release also pointed to Harper's "close friendship" with former EnCana President and CEO Gwyn Morgan, "a leading climate change sceptic in Alberta, who Harper tried unsuccessfully to appoint to a position overseeing government patronage appointments."

"This is all about controlling information and not about controlling greenhouse gases," said Godfrey. "The government would be thrilled if the Canadian public simply forgot about global warming, and we're simply not going to allow that to happen."

Meanwhile, the Harper government has pledged to produce a comprehensive environmental initiative in October that will supposedly include programmes dealing with curbing greenhouse emissions blamed for global warming. Still in its formative stages, government officials maintain that they have been seeking a broad range of views on the issue, but according to a recent report by the Chronicle Herald, "many environmental groups say they've been shut out."

"The reality is that the public has not been consulted at all," said Ann Coxworth of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, one of the groups in the Climate Action Network, a coalition of environmental groups that has organised public forums and workshops in a number of Canadian cities.

Shortly after taking office, Harper put the kybosh on the Liberals' Project Green. The creation of the new environmental initiative appears to follow in the footsteps established by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when he set about developing the Bush administration's energy plan. The Cheney Energy Task Force worked in secret and saw the Bush administration lean heavily on advice from utility companies, and the oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy industries, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defence Council.

The Harper project has thus far pretty much excluded environmental groups, and has been working "under tight secrecy," The Chronicle Herald reported.

"They're not giving us enough of what they intend to do for us to give them any significant advice on how to proceed," said John Bennett, executive director of the Climate Action Network. "We need to have a plan that all Canadians can work together on and you don't get a plan like that by going into a back room and then making an announcement six months later."

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.





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