Canada's Environment Commissioner Fired in Climate Flap

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, January 31, 2007 (ENS) - Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was replaced on Tuesday amidst allegations that she was too critical of Canada's performance on climate change.

As commissioner, Johanne Gelinas was part of the Office of the Auditor General, which reports to Parliament as a whole, not to the government.

Fraser

Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser (Photo courtesy Office of the Auditor General)
Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser said in a statement that Gelinas was "leaving the position to pursue other opportunities."

But in a statement Tuesday night, Gelinas, who is out of the country, wrote, "I was considering a future departure, but today's announcement from Sheila Fraser was premature and came as a complete surprise to me."

Media reports say Fraser was critical of a climate change audit report written by Gelinas and tabled September 28, 2006 in the House of Commons.

But today Fraser told the House of Commons Environment Committee that Gelinas' climate report had nothing to do with her dismissal. Fraser did not shed much light on what influenced her decision to fire Gelinas, citing privacy concerns and the possibility of future legal action on Gelinas' part.

In her controversial report, Gelinas wrote, "Climate change is upon us and no matter how you look at it, the stakes for Canada are high. With its resources and powers, the federal government can make a big difference. But our findings show that it has not been up to the task so far."

"It is increasingly clear that Canada will not meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Gelinas wrote. "The federal government is not organized to manage its climate change initiatives effectively. Missing are mechanisms to coordinate activities across departments and to track spending and results for reporting to Canadians."

The report also notes that "few federal efforts are underway to deal with the booming growth in the oil and gas sector."

Gelinas

Former Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Johanne Gelinas (Photo courtesy Office of the Auditor General)
"It is disturbing that despite $6.3 billion in announced funding since 1997, there is still no government-wide consolidated monitoring and reporting of climate change performance and spending," wrote Gelinas.

"Based on the audit evidence we have gathered over the past 18 months, it is increasingly clear that Canada will not be able to achieve the target for greenhouse gas reductions that it committed to under the Kyoto Protocol - and it has no targets beyond 2012," Gelinas wrote in the September 2006 document.

In her statement Tuesday, Gelinas said that the Conservative Government of Stephen Harper had nothing to do said, "with no interference whatsoever from the Government of Canada and its representatives."

Fraser attempted to sugar-coat the firing by stating Tuesday, "Madame Gélinas and her team have done valuable work assisting Parliamentarians through their audits of government's management of its environmental and sustainable development responsibilities."

Canada is a Party to the Kyoto Protocol and in November 2005, under the former Liberal Government, hosted the first meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal in conjunction with the eleventh session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention.

But when the Liberals were defeated in a January 2006 election, the incoming minority government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper began backing away from Canada's commitments under the protocol to cut emissions to six percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Then Environment Minister Rona Ambrose responded to Gelinas climate report in testimony before the House of Commons Environment Committee in October 2006 by saying that climate change was not a top environmental issue, while blaming the Liberals for Canada's failure to make more progress on reducing greenhouse gases.

Ambrose said the government accepted all of the commissioner's recommendations and agreed with her that Canada is not on track to fulfill its Kyoto commitments.

Ambrose said there was no clear basis for setting that "unachievable" target. In fact, emission levels are now 27 percent above 1990 levels, she said.

She said that the Liberals had wasted $1 billion on emission-reduction efforts that did not work. "Kyoto did not fail this country," Ambrose said. "The Liberal Party of Canada failed Kyoto."

Ambrose was replaced as environment minister on January 4 by John Baird, amidst public demands for more action on climate change.

A public opinion survey by Decima Research, released January 4 as Prime Minister Harper was changing environment ministers, found the environment to be the most pressing concern of Canadians.

Nineteen percent of those polled said the environment was the issue that concerned them most personally, followed by health care at 13 percent.

Decima asked 1,727 likely voters to rate the Harper government's action in 20 different areas. Environmental policy came out the worst, with 74 percent saying the government is doing a bad job and only 18 percent approving.

Liberal Natural Resources Critic Mark Holland said Tuesday that Prime Minister Harper "has a history of being a staunch climate-change denier, including spearheading a fundraising campaign to kill the Kyoto Accord."

"Today we learn that world’s top climate scientists have written a report saying they are 'unequivocal' that climate change is happening now, and yet we have a Prime Minister who is still a climate change denier," said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion today.

Dion served as environment minister in the previous Liberal government. He was referring to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due out on Friday written by hundreds of scientists from around the world.

The environment commissioner who replaces Gelinas will have this hot political potato to handle.

Thompson

Assistant Auditor General Ron Thompson will serve as environment commissioner for the time being. (Photo courtesy Office of the Auditor General)
Fraser Tuesday appointed Assistant Auditor General Ron Thompson to the post "in the interim."

The position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was established in December 1995 by amendments to the Auditor General Act.

Appointed by the auditor general, the commissioner leads a group of auditors specialized in environment and sustainable development. The commissioner is responsible for assessing whether federal government departments are meeting their sustainable development objectives, and for overseeing the environmental petitions process, and reports to Parliament on behalf of the auditor general.