Assessing public commitment to endangered species protection: A Canadian case study

How much do Canadians REALLY care about protecting endangered species? We asked. See our abstract below and read the full paper here: http://www.facetsjournal.com/article/facets-2016-0054/

The paper is also covered in Canadian Geographic: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/survey-finds-canadians-support-limiting-human-activity-save-endangered-species-point

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Red Tide: Six things that #elxn42 means for conservation scientists in Canada

It’s always the case that posts on this blog solely represent the opinions of the author. In this case, I feel it’s especially important to remind the reader that my views here are my views alone and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Liber Ero fellowship or my employer – BF

In case you hadn’t heard, things just changed in Canada. Years of Conservative rule have been brought to a close with a surprise sweep by the Liberal Party of Canada, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. The Liberals now have a strong majority in parliament, which means that they have pretty much total control over the government for as much as five years.

It’s no secret that the scientific community has been broadly opposed to most of the Conservative agenda. It seemed like we couldn’t go a week without an editorial in Science, Nature, or a major international newspaper decrying some horrible decision made by the government. As a reaction to this, the union supporting public sector scientists took the unprecedented step of campaigning against the Conservatives, and many scientists got involved directly in politics in ways they never normally would have considered.

In the marine and aquatic realm, things got particularly dark. Changes to the Fisheries Act gutted habitat conservation and made it easier to pollute, while alterations to the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act triggered major reductions in environmental protection. But it appears that the Conservatives were punished for this at the ballot box – last night, only a single riding only two ridings* that touch ocean went blue.

I think we can give a lot of credit to the previous government for triggering today’s scientists to stand up and get organized.  We saw a situation that had grown so serious that it motivated the community to get out there and equip themselves with the skills needed to inject their research into policy debates. In the past, the question of ‘bridging the science-policy gap’ was met with confusion and skepticism – now, it’s a central plank of many scientific conferences. But no matter what was tried, we were always stymied by elected officials who seemed unwilling or unable to make positive decisions in this area.

Now that we have a new government, what does the science community need to do? In my opinion, the time for celebration will soon be over, and the time for hard work is just beginning.

  1. It’s time to step up and serve

For the past decade, conservation scientists in Canada have largely been forced to function as a protest group. No matter how effective our science communication, or how many classes on ‘policy briefs’ we attended, there seemed to be no mechanism for getting scientific advice into decision-making.

With yesterday’s election, the grownups are back in charge, and they’re going to need our help. To implement an environmental agenda, there will be two types of change. The first type is reversing decisions that were clearly wrong, and uniformly objected to by serious experts. Restoring fish habitat protection under the Fisheries Act is an example of this – it was crazy to reduce it in the first place, so the protection should just be put back. John Dupuis maintains a comprehensive list of such issues – simply undoing most of these would be a positive step.

The second type of change involves solving complex environmental problems that require more than just reversing what was done before. These difficult problems are where scientists are sorely needed. An example is the Liberal promise to protect 10% of our oceans within something resembling Marine Protected Areas by 2020. Implementing well-designed MPAs is never an easy process – and it requires a lot of sound science to get it right. Another is their pledge to ‘do more to protect Canada’s endangered species.’ There is a lot of room for improvement here, to say the least.

As a community we need to brace ourselves, because we will be called upon to responsibly weigh in on these complex issues. That leads me to #2.

  1. Focus on solutions

It will no longer be enough to simply identify problems with environmental policy. Going forward, we need to have a laser focus on solutions. Our new MPs will have their phones ringing constantly for the next few months with people asking for action on every issue under the sun, and giving vague advice about how things just need to be better will not be sufficient.

Canadians, in general, care about conservation. I believe that most of our new MPs do as well. But turning those values into action will require specific science-based advice made available to them in digestible formats. The Liberal platform makes promises to review many environmental laws, including the Fisheries Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Biologists, social scientists, lawyers, and a wide array of other professionals will need to work together with the new government to ensure that those changes improve the conservation situation in our country.

A group of marine scientists in Canada (including myself) recently published a paper that aimed to do just this. We examined what we considered the most damaging policy decisions in the marine environment over the past decade, where policy diverged most from science. Through this effort, we produced specific, measurable recommendations that could be implemented by a new government. Over the next few days we will actively circulate this document, along with a ‘plain English’ summary to newly elected MPs.

I challenge all environmental scientists to take on similar projects. What specifically needs to change in Canada, and how would we measure that change? What international obligations will the change help us meet, and what principle will be served by implementing it?

  1. Be non-partisan

Over the past decade, scientists in Canada rose up, and rightfully so. Many scientists have now gotten engaged in the political process, and a lot of us unabashedly embraced the ABC campaign due to our collective concern over where the country was headed. Well, ABC has happened, so it’s time to prove that our motivations were not partisan.

The NDP, Liberals, Greens, and the Bloc all made promises associated with science, the environment, and climate change. Any MP from any of those parties could be the next champion for some critical environmental issue, and so when we produce science that is relevant to policy, it is imperative that we circulate it to members from all parties for review.

Even the Conservatives will likely have to re-brand. Now that they are leaderless, the next-in-line will have to decide the party’s future. I’d feel a lot more comfortable if Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition valued science, and we shouldn’t pre-judge where they may end up on this issue. Let’s invite them, with open arms, back to the world of evidence-based decision-making. In fact, without Harper’s control, I suspect that reasonable individual MPs may get a better chance to shine on these issues (I’m looking at you, Michael Chong).

  1. Crystallize good policy

The last decade has taught us that convention alone is not sufficient to protect science or the environment. There was no precedent for the widespread muzzling of scientists that we observed, but it was made possible by the lack of specific rules that prevented such a behaviour. This gap was exploited ruthlessly over the past decade – and I suspect it will be again one day if action is not taken.

A promise that ‘we won’t do it again’ is not enough – even if this government keeps all its promises, all it will take is another anti-science government to get elected and we’re right back where we started.

Sound science policy needs to be crystallized in regulation and law. One thing that could happen right away is the creation of a formal federal scientific integrity policy that allows for widespread, unrestricted communication of science. Our friends to the south have a perfect model for us, we just have to implement it.

But in general, I believe we need to trend in this direction – if something is good policy, the past decade has taught us that the policy needs to be written down and enforced.

  1. Use the Access to Information Act to get data

This may seem like a niche issue compared to the previous four, but bear with me. Mr. Trudeau has promised a wide range of measures to open up government. He should be supported on that front. In the meantime, he has also promised to make the Access to Information Act more user-friendly. One example of this will be reducing the filing fee to $5, with no additional charges on top of that. We should rally behind this promise, and then use the Act to get data.

For those who aren’t aware, the Access to Information Act is a law that allows Canadians to request documents and data that have not been made available to the public. Submitting a request under this law is easy, but over the past decade it has taken longer to get data through the system, and costs have risen. For example, the government charges $10 per hour for data processing for paper records – and some requests can take thousands of hours to complete. Mr. Trudeau and his party have pledged to eliminate those fees, which creates a huge opportunity for scientists to use this system to get data for policy analysis.

  1. Restoring democratic integrity must be a priority

Finally, science will always be vulnerable if institutions aren’t in place to respect it. The past decade has shown us that our parliamentary process is open to abuse. Omnibus bills have made it impossible to have proper debates about legislative reform. The Fair Elections Act damaged our voting system. Bill C-51 enabled broad spying powers by the government which experts have said should be a concern to all Canadians. The long form census should be restored. On each of these issues, Mr. Trudeau has pledged some degree of reform. We will need to hold him and his party to it.

Taken together, it’s an exciting time to be a conservation scientist in Canada. But it also means we have an obligation. Our role in the past was to point out problems – our role in the present is to use our skills and talents to help fix them.

Now let’s get to it!

*The two ridings are Richmond Centre and Surrey-White Rock. There are some Conservative ridings in Quebec that are adjacent to the St. Lawrence, but that is an estuary.