Environmental campaigners in Canada have been told that climate science is a partisan issue in the upcoming election.

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Climate facts subject to rules on partisan advertising in Canada

Environmental charities and campaigners in Canada’s upcoming federal election this fall say they are facing new restrictions on how they talk about climate change after a warning from the country’s election watchdog that the topic will be subject to rules around third party “issue advertising.”

Elections Canada, an independent agency based in Gatineau that governs the country’s elections, told charities at a training session in July that because the People’s Party of Canada, a fringe right-wing party led by former Conservative Cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, denies the reality of human-caused climate change, any advertising during the election that states it is real or advocates for policies to address it could be seen as indirectly campaigning against that party. Groups making such statements would be required by federal law to register as third parties in the election, Elections Canada told the attendees.

Registering as a third party comes with onerous financial reporting requirements and would put the charitable status of an organization at risk, but running political ads without registering carries a financial penalty. 

“Charities are forbidden from partisan activity, and now saying climate change is real is considered partisan,” says Keith Brooks, program director for the charity Environmental Defence in Toronto, Canada.

A spokesperson for Elections Canada says the rules apply only during the election campaign itself—starting once the campaign is declared, between 50 and 36 days before the 21 October election date—and only to activities that cost money, above a threshold of CA$500. Groups can still participate in media interviews, send emails and text messages, run a website, or canvass door to door during the election without running afoul of the rules. But paid advertisements in print or on TV, radio, or social media would be subject to regulation. (The rules would not apply to unpaid social media posts.)

Brooks says the warning is prompting his group to thinking carefully about how it will approach the election. “We can’t say something specific about climate change, but it seems talking about environmental awareness in general is OK,” he says.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa, says more clarity is needed on how the rules will be applied. The group’s Vote Science campaign encourages people to support evidence-based policies in the election. “We were confident that we would not have to register as a third party,” Gibbs says. “But now if a candidate somewhere says they don’t believe in science, would the campaign be considered partisan?”

She is also worried that the restriction will make it harder to cut through misinformation campaigns that target democratic elections. “There is so much concern about the role of misinformation in our democracy,” Gibbs says. “Now more than ever we should be encouraging organizations to step in and clarify the facts so that people can make their decision on who to vote for based on evidence.”

Canadian scientists have also sounded the alarm, and dozens of researchers have signed an open letter of protest to Elections Canada. “It seems ridiculous,” says Sarah Otto, a theoretical biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “We are all agreed that not only is climate change real, but human caused, and we have a narrow window to act,” she says. “If we can’t talk about it in the election, we’re going in blind.”