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Canada’s independent competition watchdog says it doesn’t have enough resources to investigate false advertising by climate deniers, and is calling on the public for help.
After more than a year of investigating, the Competition Bureau abruptly dropped its inquiry earlier this summer into three groups that had displayed information in public raising doubts about the international scientific consensus on climate change.
The groups put up websites and billboards that promoted statements like, “the sun is the main driver of climate change,” and “carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,” according to an application filed with the bureau, a Canadian independent law enforcement agency.
Those views are contrary to mainstream climate science and the government of Canada itself, which states that "changes in solar irradiance have contributed to climate trends over the past century but since the industrial revolution, the effect of additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has been over 50 times that of changes in the sun's output."
Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) had already ruled that one of the groups ran publicity that violated the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. The ASC is self-regulating and cannot impose any binding sanctions, but it releases its decisions publicly to act as a deterrent.
Ecojustice lawyer Charles Hatt cited the ASC decision when he filed an application with the competition bureau for an investigation into the questionable statements in December 2015.
The bureau took on the case the following spring in April 2016. Yet more than a year afterward, on June 29, 2017, it told Hatt that its investigation had come to an end.
The bureau had "discontinued" the inquiry in order to ensure the "effective allocation of limited resources" after considering the available evidence and facts, wrote Josephine Palumbo, the deputy commissioner of competition.
“Notwithstanding this assessment, should new evidence of alleged anti-competitive conduct come to your attention, the commissioner remains receptive to receiving any additional information,” she added.
The bureau has also made it clear that it will re-start the inquiry if new evidence is uncovered.
"We invite Canadians who believe they may have additional information to contact the Competition Bureau," said senior communications advisor Mélanie Beauchesne in an email to National Observer.
Bureau needed 'smoking gun,' says Ecojustice
In an interview, Hatt said the decision was "particularly disappointing" because the bureau has special investigative powers that would better position it to uncover the motive behind the groups' efforts.
"Who’s paying for these? Why? Who benefits? Is it for a business purpose as it appears to be?" he asked. "...They’re the ones with the real power to investigate this sort of thing.
"A private citizen can’t do that. You have no powers to take statements under oath, or search documents, search premises. So it’s unlikely that we or anyone else is going to uncover the smoking gun evidence that the bureau would need to reopen its inquiry."
One of the three groups sought in the inquiry, Friends of Science, popped up last year in a U.S. coal giant's bankruptcy proceedings, listed as a creditor with some form of financial arrangement. At the time, the Calgary group said it didn't know how they were connected to the coal company.
Hatt’s application also sought an inquiry into the International Climate Science Coalition and the U.S.-based Heartland Institute. The billboards or websites from all three groups, Hatt suggested in his application, made “false and misleading representations and/or reviewable conduct under the Competition Act.”
The Competition Bureau should look at the case, the application read, because “climate science misrepresentations are inherently harmful to the proper functioning of markets in Canada."
“The confusion they sow makes low-carbon technologies less competitive and distorts capital investment toward high-carbon industries, risking a carbon bubble," it read.
Requests for comment to Friends of Science and the Heartland Institute weren't returned before publication.
In a statement to National Observer, Tom Harris, executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition, said he was "glad the Competition Bureau did not fall into this trap."
"When authorities promote truth about science, progress stops," he said. "It's time to open up, not shut down, the debate about climate change, one of the most complex and costly issues of our age."
Harris argued that while "truth applies to things like mathematics or chess in which we write the rules," truth "never applies to our findings about nature," which he called, "merely educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations."
Climate science is in part the application of physics — an advanced form of applied mathematics — to the study of the atmosphere.
Calls for more resources, ministerial attention
Hatt filed the application on behalf of six prominent Canadians: former diplomat Stephen Lewis, environmental author Tzeporah Berman, ecology professor David Schindler, atmospheric scientist Thomas Duck, climate scientist Danny Harvey and Ecojustice director Devon Page.
“It is a very disappointing outcome, and it’s very troubling,” said Duck in an interview. “They took on the problem over a year ago, and so presumably they’ve been investigating it in this time.
"If they had come to a conclusion that there was no illegal behaviour, you would have figured they would have come out with a finding in that regard, rather than just abandon the case altogether.”
Hatt called the bureau's citing of a lack of resources, “a problem with an easy solution" — providing more resources.
He said responsibility for this rested with the bureau's management, which "set the priorities within the bureau, and would have the ability to direct more resources, if more resources were required.”
“I don’t think that that’s the decision of the investigator who was assigned to the file. It was a management decision," he said.
In an Aug. 25, 2017 blog post, he also argued that the onus was on institutions to ensure that enough of the public maintains trust in climate scientists and grasps the urgency of the situation.
"Misinformation means aggressive climate policies will be harder to achieve and capital and consumer markets will keep leaning towards polluting fossil fuels," he wrote.
Beauchesne of the Competition Bureau said, "a number of factors are considered" when prioritizing cases and deciding to pursue inquiries.
"For example, the bureau will look at the nature and scope of the conduct, its impact on consumers and competition, the bureau's enforcement policies and priorities, and the financial and human resources required to pursue a specific matter," she said.
As the June letter did, Beauchesne left the door open for the investigation to be re-opened, given that the bureau's enforcement decisions are based on "available evidence."
"Should new and compelling evidence of harm to competition or deceptive marketing practices come to light, the bureau will not hesitate to take appropriate action," she explained. "We invite Canadians who believe they may have additional information to contact the Competition Bureau."
But Duck said the bureau’s admission of its lack of resources meant “our federal government has some explaining to do.”
Climate change is the most important long-term problem facing the planet, and the Trudeau government has made it very clear they agree, he noted.
"So if there are industrial interests that are involved in illegal anti-competitive behaviour, that is undermining our ability to deal with the climate change problem, this is something that they should be very interested in as well, and they should make sure that an investigation into this kind of thing was sufficiently funded," said Duck.
Hatt also said he would welcome attention to the issue from Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, the minister responsible for industry, but hadn't received any indication that it was something the minister was interested in.
Bains' press secretary Karl Sasseville received questions but could not respond before publication. National Observer also asked questions to Justice Minister Judy Wilson-Raybould’s office, but press secretary Kathleen Davis directed those to Bains' office.