05/02/2013 08:03 EDT | Updated 07/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Where Does Joe Oliver Get His Climate Science From?

Imagine if you discovered that a doctor was doing open-heart surgery based on a technique they saw on the TV show. Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it's this kind of unscientific technique that the Harper government appears to be relying on to diagnose the health of our planet, and how they should react to it.


Imagine if you discovered that a doctor was doing open-heart surgery based on a technique they saw on the TV show Grey's Anatomy, or that a dentist used a Google search to guide them through a root canal.

Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately, it's this kind of unscientific technique that the Harper government appears to be relying on to diagnose the health of our planet, and how they should react to it.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver recently cast doubt on climate change science and one source of his information appears to be climate-change skeptic and author Lawrence Solomon, who is not a scientist.

The revelation came in mid-April when Oliver told the Montreal daily newspaper La Presse that, "People aren't as worried as they were before about global warming," citing a recently revised forecast from UK National Weather Service (known as the Met Office) that the average temperature is likely to be 0.43 degrees Celsius above the long-term average by 2017 -- as opposed to an earlier forecast that suggested a warming of 0.54 degrees.

Oliver went on to say that, "scientists have recently told us that our fears [about climate change] are exaggerated."

Oliver wasn't immediately able to cite who those scientists were, but his staff followed up with reporters afterwards, pointing to an article written by Solomon and other publications from academics questioning whether the pace of global warming was slowing, according to The Canadian Press.

Environmentalists were right to pounce, questioning the federal government's commitment to the environment and where it was getting its information on global warming.

The Oliver team's ill-informed argument came alongside an International Energy Agency report stating that the world is way off track if it wants to prevent global warming of more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"The drive to clean up the world's energy system has stalled," the IEA said in its report, "the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago." That report was followed by another study from Chinese and Canadians scientists linking the burning of fossil fuels to a daily temperature spikes in China.

These are just some of the numerous studies done over the years that conclude the burning of fossil fuels have an impact on global warming. Still, none of these reports, or columnists who write about them, were cited as Oliver's source of information.  

This comes as little surprise to anyone paying close attention to the Harper government's abominable environmental record. This is the same administration, after all, that recently withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol climate change agreement amid international backlash, and that continues to paint Alberta's oil sands as a "greener alternative" than other sources around the world.

It's this type of ideological blindness that is driving Canadian policy around climate change, and Canadians should be very concerned. Isn't it the job of elected official to make policy decisions based on facts -- from both sides of an argument -- and weigh public sentiment? Doesn't a cabinet minister -- particularly one so directly tied to the environment debate -- have a responsibility to get his information from reliable sources and both sides of the debate?

I asked Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University and author of the recent book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars," about what Oliver should be reading if he is truly committed, as he claims, to environmental protection.

According to Mann, Oliver should be reading scientific assessments that look at what the peer-reviewed literature collectively has to say, "rather than cherry-picking individual articles."

Mann said a good place for Oliver to start is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Mann, who follows the climate change debate closely,  said assessments from IPCC and other peer-reviewed literature indicate that we can expect "anywhere from a two to five degrees Celcius warming from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations relative to pre-industrial levels, a level we will hit in a matter of decades if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current accelerating rates."

As for the UK Met Office forecast, Mann says Oliver's use of the information is flawed, and that the weather service is still standing by its long-term forecast.

The BBC reported in January the UK Met Office changed the forecast as a result of a new computer model that it is experimenting with, and quoted a spokesperson as saying, "This definitely doesn't mean any cooling -- there's still a long-term trend of warming compared to the 1950s, '60s or '70s. Our forecast is still for temperatures that will be close to the record levels of the past few years."

To try to figure out more about how Oliver perceives the threat of global warming, I reached out to scientists at the Pembina Institute to see if there was anything the Harper government has done since it was first elected in 2006 to suggest they see climate change as a serious problem.

While there have been occasional "bright spots," Canada's overall record is poor, said Matt Horne, the director of the Pembina Institute's climate change program.

"Our emissions are still projected to rise, government statements about climate change and climate policy are often incorrect and unhelpful, and many of Canada's efforts on the international stage have taken the world further from agreement," Horne said.

To Horne, a serious response to climate change would include a plan that gets the country on track for our targets and includes, "an honest conversation with Canadians about climate change and the actions we can take in response, and a constructive approach to engaging with our international partners in accelerating global action."

For Oliver, that honest conversation needs to begin with an expansion of his climate change reading list.

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