The signatories said they were profoundly concerned after Elections Canada warned environmental groups that launching campaigns on the perils of climate change during the fall federal vote could potentially require them to register as third-party advertisers.
The scientists are calling on the agency to clarify how it interprets issue-based advertising rules in the Canada Elections Act so that groups can communicate on climate change without having to register.
WATCH: ‘This is lunacy’ — May urges Elections Canada to reconsider partisan warning on climate change discussion
One of the signatories, Christopher Lyon of the University of Leeds, said in a statement that the registration process may “stifle evidence-based discussion” during the election. He said that a “chilling precedent” has been set.
Elections Canada issued a statement Tuesday explaining that the legislation doesn’t prevent anyone from discussing issues.
If groups spend $500 or more on certain activities, they will need to register as third parties with Elections Canada and submit reports, the statement said. They will also face a spending limit of $511,700.
Elections Canada said that the policy on issue-based advertising “leads to increased transparency” and only applies in cases where the issue is “clearly associated with a candidate or party.”
The Act applies regardless of whether a candidate or party is mentioned.
The scientists argued that in describing climate change as an issue under which regulation may be required, the subject is being framed as a debate despite scientific consensus on the crisis.
WATCH: Elections Canada warns environmental groups about making climate statements
“The weight of scientific evidence and consistent cross-party political support for major international climate efforts makes absolutely clear that the existence of climate change is not up for debate,” said Marie Claire Brisbois of the University of Sussex.
Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said that the Canada Elections Act “doesn’t speak to the substance of potential third party issue advertising, nor does it make a distinction between facts and opinion.”
“It is not Elections Canada’s role to make that distinction, no matter how obvious it may appear.”
The controversy was sparked by a report from the Canadian Press over the weekend.
The outlet reported that one advocacy group, Environmental Defence, said an Elections Canada official explained during a training session that groups that communicate on the dangers of global warming could potentially be deemed partisan because People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has made skeptical statements about the subject.
The letter was signed by 352 researchers working in Canada and abroad.
—With files from the Canadian Press