A new report by the United Nations Environment Program has outlined the top 21 environment issues we’re facing as we continue moving through the 21st century.

While all 21 issues are relevant in Canada and to Canadians, as climate change is relevant to every global citizen, issue number four stands out.

“Broken Bridges: Reconnecting Science and Policy,” as the UNEP report calls it, discusses the importance of opening-up communication between scientists, policy makers and the general public. 

“Meeting the challenge of global environmental change requires, among other things, a strong base of knowledge about environmental issues,” says the report, much of which comes from scientists and researchers.

“The important point is that this knowledge has to be communicated to a wider audience of decision-makers and the general public. It is this larger community that has to make the difficult decisions about how to contend with climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, and other global environmental changes facing society,” the report states. 

According to the report, this lack of open communication has led the public to lose confidence in environmental science and has created a barrier between policy makers and scientists.
If this communication barrier isn’t somehow overcome the report says “the likely outcome [will be] that decision-makers will not have adequate knowledge to intervene in environmental problems, scientists will have few incentives to make their outputs policy-relevant, and the public will not support the expense of intervening.”

A concern in Canada

The UNEP report highlights the importance of communicating scientific findings not only to policy makers, but also the general public — something that has become more difficult in Canada, at least where federal scientific research is concerned. 

Last week panelists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver discussed how open communication between media and government scientists and researchers has become increasingly difficult since 2007, when new communication policies were implemented.

The panel was one of the first at the annual meeting and received considerable media coverage.

The new policies force journalists to request interviews through media relations rather than go directly to scientists or researchers as they could in the past, and force scientists to stick to pre-written, pre-approved messages when discussing their work. 

A webcast of the panel is available here

Why is this a problem? 

According to Andrew Weaver, one of the panelists and a climate scientist based at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, a number of problems have resulted from these tight communication rules.

Probably most significantly, he said these rules have weakened the democratic role played by the media. 

“[The media] provide the public with information and so allows for informed and responsible decision making. It provides citizens a voice in public discourse and it holds elected leaders accountable to the electorate for their choices and actions...without this access, I believe that the media are unable to fulfill their role as agents of the people in a democratic system.” 

No quick fix

Weaver suggested Canada move its communication policies in the direction of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which allows NOAA scientists to speak freely to the media and the public about their research and to freely express their opinions as long as it is clear that it is their individual opinion. 

The UNEP report says, “taking action to improve communication, access to scientific information, and other underlying causes of broken bridges, will provide an atmosphere by which the scientific community can respond better to the needs of society. Policymakers will be better informed, and the public will benefit from evidence-based policies.” 

To improve communication between scientists and policymakers the report suggests, among other ideas, working together on environmental scenario analyses to create models of how certain environmental situations could evolve.

Whatever solution options are chosen, both the AAAS panelists and the UNEP report came to the same conclusion — increased communication is key.
Without it, “society will be less equipped and less successful in managing the risks of global environmental change,” says the report.