Some disturbing statistics were presented in a guest column in the New York Times: “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” by the University of Rochester physics professor Adam Frank. Roughly half of Americans are creationists, and only 58% are concerned about climate change. These numbers are slightly worse than they were 30 years ago. In Canada, creationism is not as big a concern (in 2008, 22% of Canadians think God created humans in the last 10,000 years, and 20% are unsure and surprisingly, according to a 2012 poll, 98% of Canadians believe that climate change is real, and most believe that humans are at least partly responsible (86%)). Though in Canada science literacy is slightly better than in the states, we still have a government that systematically undermines science in policy, and in the oil in gas community in Calgary people are far less willing to hold humans accountable for the state of our climate. The dissonance between the conclusions of science and the economic imperative of the resource economy have made working in my field, science consulting, an interesting place to be.

Why should we rely so heavily on science when developing policy? Because our brains are notoriously biased. We are so good at finding patterns where there are none, that scientists working with the multitude of images from the Hubble Space Telescope crowd sourced basic image analysis because they could not write software as good as finding patterns as the human eye. We also have a nasty habit of discounting facts that challenge comfortable ways of thinking. Science, at its root, is a method for trying to understand the natural world, without falling prey to the easy tricks of our minds. You think that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck? Prove it. Walk down the same street 10 times in a row. Have someone release a black cat in your path randomly. See what happens. You think that echinaceae prevents colds? Prove it. Show it to me. Let me prove it. By rigorously testing the world, we can show ourselves and each other how things work. For a country that is as heavily dependent on our environment and natural resources as Canada, good science is imperative for managing our resources, and thus the economy which relies so heavily on them.

Good science is extremely important in environmental regulations. This last week I participated in the 10-year review of the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations. In particular, we were looking at the Environmental Effects Monitoring Regulations. These rules dictate to mines how they have to monitor the environment for damage due to contaminants in effluent. In the late spring, Environment Canada brought together a number of stake-holders to review proposed changes to the regulations. The Alberta Environmental Network contacted Sustainability Resources Ltd, the non-profit society with which Endeavour Scientific is associated, to inquire whether we were interested in participating for the eNGO sector. I naively said yes.

Environmental regulations like the guidelines for Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) balance a bewildering number of considerations. Metal mines can include mines for uranium, base metals like nickel, iron and zinc, and precious metals. They operate in every province and territory but PEI, and are situated in various environments. Some release effluent into large rivers, but most are remote and release into small headwater areas. One mine has the potential to have no effluent released at all. As a result of differing ore bodies, technologies and water sources, the types and amounts of effluents from mine to mine are wildly different. With all these considerations, designing a scientifically defensible program to detect problems is tricky, to say the least. The solution taken by EEM is to test fish and the tiny organisms living in the river bottom, and compare them to similar communities of fish and river bottom dwellers nearby. The monitoring studies are done on three year intervals. If two studies showed that there was an effect on the environment, the mines are required to investigate why, and how it can be fixed. The elegance of the program is that it does not require an understanding of what compounds may be coming out of the effluent (though these are monitored as well), so that problems can be detected even if mines are in compliance. Simple and elegant, but fiendishly difficult to do in the field. A number of operators discovered the hard way that doing cheap studies in early monitoring efforts required them to do expensive investigative studies that showed only that their sites were variable, something that more thorough monitoring earlier on would have shown. Improvements in the regulations to make detecting real problems were proposed.

I expected for my participation to be a learning experience: I would read the material, go to the meeting, and largely keep my mouth shut. I expected that there would be practitioners with years of experience discussing the fine points of statistics and ecology. What I didn’t expect is that none of them would be representing the environmental sector. For this process, Environment Canada paid for the travel expenses and a small stipend for representatives of environmental organizations. The hours allotted by Environment Canada to review materials was woefully inadequate. As a result, the members of the environmental sector didn’t have the support to spend the time with the documents, much less the extra time to read anything else in the scientific literature. First Nations and Metis communities have the same challenges. By the time August rolled around, it became clear that I was the only eNGO participant for our committee with a science background, and because a number of my clients were on holidays, I took the time to dive in and prepare a position paper, find time on the agenda to discuss our concerns, and put together a presentation. I felt an enormous burden of responsibility, and no small amount of frustration at the willingness of some participants to go to these proceedings with all guns blazing, but without spending the time to really understand the issues.

Indeed as we prepared, I had misgivings about the type of meeting I would be walking into. Years of distrust have developed between the environmental sector and industry, and mining, in particular, is widely felt to be among the most polluting industries internationally. Some members had less time than others to prepare, but brought years of frustration to the process. Too often, on both sides, people are prepared to fight over any small detail that suggests a double cross. At the same time, subtle changes to the regulations can result in dangerous loss of protection to the environment, or huge costs to industry that do nothing but generate ill will. Dealing with these issues require honesty, preparation, and making absolutely sure that your objections are substantive.

At Endeavour Scientific, I work hard to find the middle ground between the imperatives of the economy and the need to protect the environment. I work hard to make sure that a group of people in a divided room can find the common ground to discuss the issues. The best way to start to break down barriers? Humour. That’s tricky. I started my presentation with a picture from Dr. Seuss and said that I spoke for the trees. Then asked if anyone was a fan of the Lorax. And then listened to the crickets. I swear to God, mid-morning in Ontario, in the middle of a large government building, I heard crickets. I gamely fought on. By the end of my talk, some members were smiling, some were thoughtful, some shifted uncomfortably. But as the day wore on, we found that discussing the science provided a way to really address the issues. By the end of the day, participants were commenting on the lack of tension and progress we’d made.

This process would be improved immeasurably if Environment Canada had approached the eNGO and Aboriginal sector earlier, provided capacity funding so that these sectors could be on an even playing field with industry in terms of the time and resources they could bring to the proceedings. Sustainability Resources and I donated our time to make sure our understanding of the issues was thorough and we were prepared; and without our commitment to the process and to building consensus, the meeting could easily have been tense, full of conflict and ultimately unproductive. Both the environmental and industrial sectors have for too long neglected the complexities of the science in order to emphasize easily digestible talking points. As a result, the environment suffers.

Balancing priorities is difficult. True consensus is possible when you’re clear on what issues are truly important, and where you can find compromise. Science not only gives policy makers tools for really measuring and understanding the impact of policy on the natural world, but allows stake-holders to have discussions that, if not completely free of posturing, at least are based on what’s real. When we talk about what can be proven, we find that we can actually start to talk.