Steven Lee has spoken in hundreds of classrooms around the country about challenges for today’s young people posed by everything from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence to climate change.
But it wasn’t until he gave a talk in Airdrie, Alta., just north of Calgary, that his message drew the attention of a government agency — Alberta’s so-called ”war room.”
“I’m a reporter with the Canadian Energy Centre,” the phone message said.
“Our website is launching next week and we will be writing a story about the 3% Project, which has raised concerns among some parents who reached out to us following presentations at their children’s schools.”
Lee had just become perhaps the first person scrutinized by the centre, a $30-million government-funded operation intended to correct what it sees as misinformation about the province’s energy industry. It recently opened its office in downtown Calgary.
“Government cracking down on you — I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that,” Lee said.
“A few individual parents angry with what I’m saying is understandable. But when a government agency formally and officially approaches you and your work, that is intimidating.”
Lee, 25, is a longtime activist who began the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship in 2012. The 3% Project is the group’s main effort.
It seeks to build consensus for climate change action by speaking to a million students, about three per cent of Canada’s population. Although climate is a major focus of Lee’s talks, his goal is to get students thinking broadly about the world they will graduate into, he said.
“It’s not just climate change. We’re looking at artificial intelligence, automation, cybersecurity, genetic engineering. These are all global and systemic problems and this is something my generation will need to grapple with.”
In an hour-long video of a presentation to a Calgary high school, Alberta’s oilsands are not mentioned.
Although Lee took out $60,000 in personal debt and lived in his car for two months before he got backers for the project, it is now funded by several private Canadian foundations and corporations with support from the federal and New Brunswick governments.
He has spoken to more than 400 high schools and 83 universities and colleges.
On Dec. 10, an article appeared on the energy centre’s website titled: “Alberta father irked by charity group that targets fossil fuel industry.” It quoted a father concerned that Lee’s presentation was one-sided. It also claimed inaccuracies in the group’s materials, available on its website.
Those materials quote an International Monetary Fund working paper that found Canada subsidizes its fossil fuel industry by about $46 billion a year.
The centre pointed out that a working paper does not represent an official IMF position. It also questioned the credibility of the figure, quoting other studies that set the subsidy level closer to $3 billion.
In an email to The Canadian Press, a co-author of the paper said his work had been fully peer reviewed within the IMF. Ian Parry also explained his subsidy figure was high because it included environmental and social costs as well as direct subsidies — a completely different measure than that used by the centre for comparison.
“Broadly speaking, our estimates of environmental costs are in line with those of other studies,” Parry wrote.
The centre also questioned a quote from a 2013 study in Lee’s material that concluded the fossil fuel industry spent $558 million between 2003 and 2010 on climate change denial. Its story said the study really showed most of that funding came from conservative foundations, not industry.
The centre didn’t mention that the study found funding for those foundations — which is untraceable — increased at the same time industry stopped directly funding climate change denial.
“The correspondence is suggestive of an effort to conceal funding of (denial),” the paper states.
Centre spokesman Grady Semmens, who said staff are not advised to call themselves reporters, defended the article.
“The information addressed in our story is based on our review of the group’s publicly available handbook, information on their website and the concerns highlighted by the parents we spoke to,” he said.
Lee said his plans won’t change as a result of the war room’s attention, or dozens of hate messages and death threats he has received — most of them from Alberta. He is scheduled to speak again in the province in January.
He notes that most of the points raised in the centre’s article are familiar — that Canada’s percentage of global emissions is small and that Canadian companies are world leaders in clean energy.
“Most of them were very common tactics that people use against climate change messaging. I found it slightly surprising and disappointing that a $30-million war room, all they could pull off was the normal messaging everyone else already does.”