A "crisis is looming" in Canadian climate science, thanks to the elimination of a key federal program that supports atmospheric research in Canadian universities, an international coalition of researchers said in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
More than 250 scientists from 22 countries signed the letter, which was released on Monday by the Canadian research advocacy group Evidence for Democracy. The letter calls on the Prime Minister to restore or replace the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research program, or CCAR, which was not renewed in the 2017 federal budget and which is set to expire with the current fiscal year. Of the seven projects funded by the program, most are now ramping down and laying off research staff.
"The only dedicated program funding climate and atmospheric research in Canada is disappearing," the letter states, a loss that "will be felt far beyond Canada's borders."
Research funded by the federal program included collaborations across universities to gather and analyze data and model atmospheric phenomena in Canada, including the effects of changing sea ice and snow cover, the movement of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the ocean, and the impact of airborne particulates known as aerosols on cloud formation. Much of the work had an Arctic focus, with results that are relevant for understanding climate change globally.
"Now is not the time to cut funding for this kind of work," said Benjamin Santer, a senior U.S. climate researcher based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and one of the signatories of the letter.
Dr. Santer noted that plenty of research remains to be done to reduce the uncertainty for policy makers about what lies ahead as climate change becomes more pronounced. "In my opinion, this problem is not done and dusted," he said.
The antagonism of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration toward climate change has made it especially important for Canada to maintain its research capacity, said Dr. Santer, who added that he was speaking as an individual scientist and not on behalf of his institution.
In Canada, climate science has had its own ups and downs – particularly university-led research, which is funded separately from the work performed by government scientists under Environment and Climate Change Canada.
In 2000, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien created the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which distributed $117-million in funding to university researchers over 12 years. The foundation was eliminated by the Harper government and replaced with CCAR, a less costly program which funded seven projects to the tune of about $1-million per year over five years. This is the program that the Trudeau government has opted not to renew, despite an internal review last April, which concluded that funding CCAR was "an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government given the increasing demand for information on climate change."
The most high-profile project funded by the program is the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory located on Ellesmere Island. Last fall, federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan announced that the unique facility would receive additional funding to maintain operations for another 18 months, a rescue that was seen as a bridge to a future funding mechanism that has yet to be developed.
Meanwhile, the other projects under CCAR won no such reprieve. The decision to let the entire program expire without an alternative in place has perplexed scientists and research advocates who point to the government's pro-active stance in other areas of climate policy.
"They're hitting all of the boxes except the one that underpins it all, which is the scientific research. It's a very frustrating blind spot," said Dan Weaver, a spokesperson for Evidence for Democracy and a PhD student in atmospheric science at the University of Toronto.
Ms. Duncan responded to questions about the letter by noting the federal government's broader support for Arctic science, including research conducted on the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen and the completion of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which is set to open early this year. Neither facility is focused on climate research, however.
"Our government understands that the Arctic matters now more than ever because of climate change. That is why we are taking a whole-of-government approach to the Arctic," Ms. Duncan said, adding that she was working with cabinet colleagues on an Arctic policy framework "in which science will play a key role."
Mr. Weaver said the upcoming federal budget represents the final opportunity to keep the field stable in Canada, though the lack of certainty has already taken a toll and has encouraged some climate researchers to look elsewhere for employment.
Camille Li, a Canadian climate scientist and associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway said there was no question that Canada falls far short of the Nordic country in its funding for climate science, despite having seven times the population and a far larger share of the Arctic.
"The differences are stark, especially considering how similar the two places are," she said, noting that a Norwegian program that is approximately the equivalent of CCAR is funded at about three times the level that the Canadian program was.