Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences

Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences

What Happened

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) was Canada’s premier funding agency for university-led climate science. Over twelve years, CFCAS provided grants of nearly $120 million to 37 Canadian universities. Research findings have been significant both nationally and internationally. Funds were used to study global climate models, northern carbon flux, melting polar ice, Arctic storms, prairie droughts and shrinking glaciers.

However, over two successive budgets, the Harper government did not renew CFCAS’ funding and failed to appoint board members.  

By 2011–2012, CFCAS had lost its key staff and provided less than $1 million in research and outreach grants.  

The much-diminished organization now operates as the Canadian Climate Forum.

The CFCAS was established in 2000 by the Chrétien government. It received $60 million in 2003, divided into operating funds and funds for research grant. A further grant of $50 million in 2003 ensured the foundation’s survival until 2010. In total, CFCAS received $102-million in government funding for research grants and $8 million for administration, over 12 years. According to its 2011-2012 Annual Report, by effective management of its resources, CFCAS delivered nearly 20 per cent more in research grants than it received from the federal government.[i]

Combined with $156 million of cash and in-kind support from partners, the Foundation supported two dozen national research networks and more than 160 major scientific projects across the country.

CFCAS-supported science has contributed to concrete improvements to Canadian lives—helping Maritime communities to anticipate Atlantic storms, equipping northerners to manage the effects of warming in the Arctic, and ensuring that prairie farmers can withstand major droughts.[ii]

Funds dry up

In 2009, former Environment Minister Jim Prentice extended the foundation’s mandate for a year but refused to refund it. Similarly, the 2010 budget had no new federal funding. Written and oral requests by CFCAS to the House of Commons Finance Committee in 2011 were again unsuccessful and the 2012 budget contained no new money for the Foundation.[iii]

In March 2010, Dawn Conway, the executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, warned, “Without new government commitment, many of the climate researchers under the foundation will be forced to put away their equipment and close their doors by the end of the calendar year.” In response, the office of then Environment Minister Jim Prentice stated that the government remained committed to basic climate change research.

By the beginning of 2011, the cuts had affected major CFCAS research initiatives and 175 of 198 networks and projects had been shut down. By October 2011, 22 of the 23 remaining had closed their doors[iv]. The research networks affected included the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which collects data on climate change in the far north and was partially shut down in 2012. While PEARL’s funding was partially re-established after an international outcry, the lab lost key staff and as of January 2014 was in “recovery mode”. Since April 30, 2012, PEARL has longer operated with staff year round and critical data seasonal was lost during the shut down. As well, with no continuing Canadian support, the World Climate Research Programme moved the international headquarters of the Stratospheric Processes and their Role in Climate (SPARC) project from Toronto to Switzerland in 2011, ending its long association with CFCAS.[v]

Minister Prentice said that the government would continue to support basic research on climate change through other venues. However, many in the research community were preoccupied that the amount of funding granted by CFCAS would not be matched by other agencies.

Climate change scepticism

Many Canadian and international scientists are also concerned that the Harper government is distrustful of climate-change science in general and of scientists who provide evidence that urgent action is needed to prevent catastrophic global warming and its impact on the lives of Canadians.

“It’s quite clear we have a government that says they believe this is an issue but really don’t care about it,” pointed out Andrew Weaver. Weaver is a world-renowned climatologist who was then at the University of Victoria is currently an MLA in BC.

Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, accused the government of stifling public debate on climate change. Saul commented at the time that the government was “muzzling scientists” by reducing funding in key areas. “It’s almost as though they’re making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.”

Opposition MPs criticized the government for being overly influenced by climate change skeptics. Scientists, however, have said that an informed public debate based on solid climate research is critical. “Now more than ever, Canada needs robust funding for weather and climate research to help us adapt to, mitigate and benefit from the changes occurring in our atmosphere and oceans,” said Gordon McBean, Chair of the CFCAS Board of Trustees. Weather forecasting, agriculture, forestry, tourism, transportation, and public safety such as bridge and sewer design, all require solid scientific research allowing for public debate which effectively informs government policy. “People die when you get the tornado forecast wrong,” commented McBean.

Between 2010 and 2012, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (which also lost its funding and has since closed its doors) published a series of six studies under the Climate Prosperity Program. NRTEE stressed that Canadians will pay a high price with respect to their health and their economy unless governments integrate the findings of climate science into their policy development.

End of the Road

The Minister of the Environment failed to provide any new funding, despite repeated requests, and declined to name replacements for any of the three federal representatives on the CFCAS Board of Trustees over a five-year period.  CFCAS’ last year of operation was 2011-2012.

During that year, CFCAS granted $965,000 to twelve projects and research consortia and provided small supplements to two Foundation-supported research networks. These awards exhausted the CFCAS grant fund.

CFCAS staff reportedly also took part in meetings and workshops.

Canadian Climate Forum: A Diminished Successor

The CFCAS successor organization is called the Canadian Climate Forum. Its mandate is described on its website as follows:

The Canadian Climate Forum organizes and supports knowledge translation, studies, workshops and symposia, and outreach activities related to climate systems and atmospheric sciences, and on impacts of and adaptations to changing climatic conditions. It collaborates with all levels of government, policy-makers, the scientific community, the private sector – and international bodies also committed to climate research and policy.

The CCF was developed in response to a 2011 consultant report commissioned by CFCAS that recommended a “renewed climate science organization that fits the current Canadian research and policy landscape” (page 4). The CFCAS final annual report in 2011-2012 describes the move to a new organizational structure as a shift from “support for research to other efforts to ensure accurate, timely weather and climate information reaches Canadian policy and decision makers and meets their needs” (page 3). As of July 2014, the CCF website described the organization’s role as translating “evidence and innovate practices into options for policy, programmes and tools to benefit Canada’s economy and its citizens.”

As of July 2014, the Forum had not released an annual report. It is actively seeking funding partners and a new executive director.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is planning a $142-million Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) located at Cambridge Bay, on the Northwest Passage. The station is scheduled to open in 2017 and is billed as “a world-class hub for science and technology in Canada’s North.” However, some scientists argue that the station is too far south to address important questions in the Arctic that deal with atmosphere and climate.

[i] Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences | Annual Report 2011-2012. Online: 2011–2012
[ii] Ibid at 3.
[iii] Ibid at 11.
[iv] Ibid at 9.
[v]  Ibid.

Relevant dates

Relevant dates

  • 2000: The CFCAS is founded.
  • 2003:  CFCAS received principal source of funding from federal government.
  • 2006-2010: The Harper minority government ends CFCAS funding. Between 2007 and 2008 the environment minister John Baird refuses to meet with CFCAS’ board to discuss the future of the foundation.
  • 2010: About 2,200 students and researchers sign a petition, demanding increased funding for the “endangered” foundation.
  • 2011: The government creates a new NSERC research program called Climate Change and Atmospheric Research that promises $35-million over five years to a range of research projects.
  • 2012: CFCAS’ federal mandate and funding are terminated in March 2012. It is continued as the “Canadian Climate Forum”, which has no significant research-funding mandate. PEARL is partially closed.  
  • 2013: Following an international outcry, the federal government announces a year later that PEARL will receive $5 million over five years, about two thirds of its previous budget.
  • 2014: The Canadian Climate Forum announces that it is looking actively for funding partners and new leadership.   

Role or Position

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) was Canada’s main funding body for research on climate, the atmosphere and the oceans. Its research supported efforts to understand our climate system, extreme weather, air quality and safety, as well as the special conditions of the Arctic. It assisted numerous global research-based initiatives, including the World Climate Research Programme and the North American Carbon Program.

CFCAS awarded nearly $120-millon for university-led research to improve our understanding of how climate and weather are changing, and affecting health, safety, economy, and the environment. CFCAS support also helped to educate and train more than 2,200 undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, research associates and technicians across the country.

Implications and Consequences

  • Free speech: Loss of critical information about Canada’s climate and atmosphere diminishes the ability of Canadians to advocate policies based on scientific evidence.
  • Democracy: The loss of critical scientific information has numerous repercussions on public debates about solutions for problems in agriculture, forestry, transportation, tourism, and other areas. Those advocating policies and solutions to problems based on ideology or assumptions will benefit. Those advocating policies and solutions based on evidence and good judgment will be at a disadvantage.
  • Democracy: Diminished information about climate change also diminishes the quality of environmental policy and decision-making and has a negative impact on the services and recourse available to the public in determining the appropriate responses to environmental issues. In particular, the elimination of research and programs, and education and training for climate scientists and technicians, has limited the ability of the public to debate and make informed judgments about climate change and industrial pollution.


Published on: Nov. 23, 2011

Updated on: Aug. 23, 2014