Environment Commissioner Should Stick to Auditing

Commentary, Climate, Frontier Centre

“The Earth is warming, triggering dramatic changes in climate and weather systems around the world. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” released by human activities are generally to blame. …Experts say we need to act quickly and effectively.”

Is this a quote from David Suzuki? Greenpeace? The Climate Action Network? No, this is how the Auditor General of Canada’s Environment Commissioner begins her latest report on the federal government’s environment programs.

Appointed to the position in 2000, Johanne Gélinas, Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, is, according to the Auditor General Act, assigned to audit “how well the federal government is meeting its environmental and sustainable development commitments.” She is also to “provide parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.”

Nowhere in the Act is it specified that the Commissioner is to behave as an activist or to promote fundamental policy. Gélinas seems to know this, at least in theory, and told assembled media in the press conference in which her report was announced, “our audits look at the process by which the government carries out its policies, not the policies themselves.”

Then, directly contradicting herself, Gélinas continued, “Canadians have to be ready to face the spread of pests and diseases, more frequent droughts in the Prairies, and longer and more frequent heat waves and smog alerts…. The government has announced that Canada cannot meet its Kyoto targets and considers these targets unrealistic. If that is the case, new targets should be established.”

Imagine the outcry if any of Gélinas’ peers in the Auditor General’s office started to promote policy – say John Rossetti, Assistant Auditor General for the Canada Revenue Agency spoke out in favour of tax hikes, or Ron Thompson, the Foreign Affairs auditor, saying that we must cut off diplomatic relations with another country. Their audit reports would never get out the door and they wouldn’t keep their jobs long if they persisted. Why is Canada’s environment auditor held to a different standard?

In defense of her single-minded focus on climate change in this year’s report, Gélinas reminds us that federal climate change programs were audited by the Commissioner’s office in 1998. That is true – then Commissioner Brian Emmett devoted one of the eight chapters of his report to climate change. But he approached the issue in a very different fashion – instead of starting the report with a sensationalist personal perspective, Emmett handled the issue as an auditor, giving little of his own personal opinion on the policies he was auditing and instead reporting, quite correctly, what the IPCC and other groups were saying.

Emmett even included a separate section in his report entitled “Many areas of uncertainty remain in the science” in which he wrote, “… the IPCC recognizes that gaps still remain in the current level of understanding about the science of climate change. The current models contain weaknesses that add further uncertainty to their projections. Among the weaknesses are imperfect knowledge of probable future rates of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and how they will affect the global climate, and incomplete understanding of the complex climate process. The uncertainties include the response of clouds, water vapour, ice and ocean circulation to increased greenhouse gas emissions. There is also scientific debate about the extent, magnitude, timing, pace and regional distribution of climate change.”

All this is still true today. Consistent with his more modest approach, Emmett explained that he “held a climate change symposium to assist the Office in gaining a basic understanding of the issues related to the subject of climate change.” He wrote that his audit team “interviewed over 70 stakeholders across Canada, representing a broad range of interests and many differing viewpoints”.

We see essentially none of this in Gélinas’ report. Did she hold public hearings or arrange testimony from climate experts? Who comprises her “Panel of Environmental Advisors”, included in the departmental org chart without names? Not since 2000 have her external advisors been identified on her Web pages. Who wrote the science section of her report? Who ever it was mustn’t have been very knowledgeable as they omit water vapour in their list of “the three “natural” greenhouse gases” even though it is by far the most significant – Emmett knew this and listed it first in his reports.

Gelinas appears to have an almost childlike faith in the infallibility of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) citing them reverentially throughout her report. While he also relied excessively on IPCC assertions, Emmett at least had the foresight to predict that “Canada is not expected to meet its stabilization goal” even though we had yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

If Gelinas had investigated the issue properly, she would have discovered that there is intense debate raging in the climate science community and that an enormous gap exists between what is politically correct and what is scientifically correct. Gélinas would also have discovered that the IPCC 2001 report that has been the basis for Canadian government climate policy repeatedly urges against using the report as a basis for policy. She would have found that the infamous “hockey stick” temperature graph used by IPCC (and still highlighted on Environment Canada’s Web site) as the major evidence of a ‘human signal’ in climate change has been repeatedly shown to be hopelessly flawed. She would also come to understand that computer models so trusted by the IPCC in past (and apparently upcoming) reports cannot reproduce past climates or even accurately forecast weather one season in advance.

Gélinas also seems unaware of recent findings that the ice core record of the past 420,000 years reveals that temperature changes before carbon dioxide (CO2) variations and not as a result of them, and that, even in the 20th century, temperatures do not correlate well with CO2 levels.

Gélinas could have provided a valuable service by pointing out that, while previous governments were wasting billions on climate change propaganda and pointless projects to “stop global warming”, valuable environmental programs were being deprived of adequate funding. She should have roundly criticized Environment Canada for closing weather stations and generally failing to provide adequate weather services – we have fewer weather stations now than in 1960 and coverage was inadequate even then. Besides the direct impact on the public, how can we possibly develop good climate computer models if we lack such basic data? As the US National Research Council report said in 1999, “Deficiencies in the accuracy, quality and continuity of the records place serious limitations on the confidence that can be placed in the research results.” Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research explains, “It’s very clear we do not have a climate observing system…This may come as a shock to many people who assume that we do know adequately what’s going on with the climate, but we don’t.”

Emmett was by no means a purist from an auditing perspective and made it clear that he personally felt reducing greenhouse gas emissions was important. However, one gets the impression on reading his reports that Emmett would have been able to have a perfectly rational discussion with scientists on both sides of the debate.

But Gélinas comes across as a zealot: “Today, Canada stands at a crossroads. The federal government must act quickly and with determination. It must stop playing in the margins and get to the heart of the problem”, she told reporters. “Changing the way Canadians produce, distribute, and consume energy is therefore critical.”

Auditor General Sheila Fraser needs to explain to Canadians how it is in our best interests to have an activist as our Environment Commissioner.