The long arm of the climate change clampdown

Environment Canada has clamped down on its scientists because of climate change talks in Durban, South Africa. Two Environment Canada scientists were scheduled to meet with the Yukon News on Wednesday to discuss studies they've conducted on contaminants in the North.

Environment Canada has clamped down on its scientists because of climate change talks in Durban, South Africa.

Two Environment Canada scientists were scheduled to meet with the Yukon News on Wednesday to discuss studies they’ve conducted on contaminants in the North.

But Wednesday morning word came from Ottawa that Hayley Hung and Sandy Steffen were not allowed to do the one-on-one media interview.

Instead the News was invited to attend an hour-long presentation the scientists were giving at Yukon College later that day.

Any additional questions would have to be sent to them through the federal government’s new communications regime.

Since 2008, Environment Canada scientists have been ordered to refer all media queries to Ottawa where communications officers help to deal with them.

In a marked change from previous governments, even basic demands for information – once easily fielded by department spokespeople – are now vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office.

It’s a process that can sometimes take days.

The Yukon College lecture topic was fairly innocuous: atmospheric transport and transformation of contaminants in the Arctic.

For 19 years, Environment Canada has been monitoring chemical pollutants at research stations at the Yukon’s Little Fox Lake and Alert, Nunavut.

They’re looking at two toxic chemicals in particular – mercury and persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs. Mercury is naturally occurring but is largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels. POPs usually come from pesticides. Both travel to the North on air currents, often from Asia.

Mercury is a huge problem in the North because it never really breaks down and ends up getting stuck in the Arctic Ocean, eventually entering the food chain.

POPs levels have been diminishing, largely due to international agreements, but because of global warming, scientists have seen a rise in the levels of some of these pollutants.

Traces of chemicals banned for years, like PCBs, are being released into the air again because of ice retreat and warmer weather.

According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, the average area covered by sea ice during the summer has declined in all nine of Canada’s northern sea-ice regions over the past four decades.

“The Arctic is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up,” said Steffen.

One of the main goals of the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Africa is to try to secure a new global climate change agreement, as the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ends in December, 2012.

Canada has been accused of obstructing progress.

There have been reports that Canada plans to withdraw from Kyoto before it officially ends. They’ve also said that Environment Minister Peter Kent is refusing to sign on to any new climate change regime until all major emitters, such as India and China, agree to limit emissions as well.

On Thursday, Kent called for a comprehensive treaty as early as 2015.

If it takes somewhat longer, that would be fine, Kent told reporters this week. That would leave the world without any binding emissions treaty for at least two years.

The climate change conference ends today.

Contact Chris Oke at

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