We’re only a minute into watching a brief low-budget video — one that begins by alleging U.S. President Barack Obama is a bully because he suggests that climate change deniers should be “called out” — when Ezra Levant sits down in the chair next to me.
The Rebel Commander himself.
According to organizers, he’s the reason attendance of tonight’s $45-per-head fundraiser in Calgary — casually titled “Climate Leadership Catastrophe: Carbon Taxes, Job Loss, Freedoms Denied” and organized by the so-called “Friends of Science” — spiked from 200 to 445 people after he was announced as its keynote speaker.
And he’s the same intensely controversial pundit who I met in late November at another Calgary event called “Generation Screwed” which I covered for Vice Canada while wearing a “Dreamy Trudeau” sweater.
“Hey James,” he says, reaching out his hand to shake mine.
We briefly chat as the video moves on to clips of testimonies from human-caused climate change denying scientists like Roy Spencer and Willie Soon (the latter took $1.25 million from fossil fuel companies and lobby groups for his research). Levant relays a hilarious and self-deprecating story to me about his flight from Toronto to Calgary during which another person fell asleep on him.
I scribble a few observations in a notepad. He scrolls through his phone, probably Twitter mentions given he sports almost 50,000 followers.
After a few minutes he gets up to leave. I remind him that I tweeted at him a while back about how the Alberta NDP was elected on Karl Marx’s birthday, which seems like crucial information to include in his vehemently anti-NDP and pro-capitalist online show.
We opt to “follow” each other on Twitter. He wanders off.
The whole interaction seemed tense. But also, well, profound; Levant has a disposition that makes one feel strangely a part of something, even if you’re ideologically opposed to him.
It’s awfully disconcerting.
Little has happened in the interim. The slides that greeted each attendee as they walked in and had their tickets scanned by an enthused 15-year-old boy before moving to the buffet tables set the tone for the evening: “Say No To Climate Co2ercion,” “$WINDle,” “Climate — Change Your Mind.”
The video, itself backgrounded with close-up shots of the stars of the American flag, features a bizarre graduation of presumed rights from “freedom of thought,” to “freedom of rational dissent” to “freedom to expose the 97 per cent consensus propaganda.”
Such pun-inspired sayings seem hokey at best. But as the remainder of the night proves, dismissing such sloganeering is as dangerous as ignoring what makes Levant a genuinely enjoyable human to interact with.
For denial of human-caused climate change has very little to do with facts or data (which is why they can argue that CO2 has nothing to do with increased average temperatures and, minutes later, point out that forest fires produce far more emissions than human activity which seems to acknowledge the relevance of CO2 to the discussion).
Many climate change psychologists have observed that one’s views on the issue depend heavily on factors such as in-group biases, pre-existing political leanings and personal connections to carbon-intensive lifestyles.
As a result, it seems deeply naive to chalk the existence of groups like Friends of Science up to a lack of info. Pushing facts like the 97 per cent tidbit will likely only further alienate this kind of audience, fostering a martyr complex.
Take the night’s first presentation. The speaker, John Harper, has worked as a petroleum geologist for the likes of ConocoPhillips and Shell Canada. It’s unclear why he was picked as the person to deliver the technical lecture as opposed to, say, an actual atmospheric or climate scientist.
“What are the rocks telling us?” serves as his mantra for the talk, despite the fact the Geological Society of America agrees that “human activities … are the dominant cause of the rapid warming since the middle 1900s.”
The levels of carbon as measured by parts per million are nothing compared to previous eons, he says, “and the earth is still here” (a curious notion given there’s no way humans could exist in such conditions). He suggests global warming is inevitable. The real problems are population growth and human excrement. Blame the sun.
The trap that believers in human-caused climate change fall into is they rely on interpretation instead of actual assessment of the data, Harper says; he doesn’t know what politicians pushing for policy to address climate change even mean by “evidence-based.”
This statement is made entirely unironically.
Most attendees seem fairly disinterested. Ringtones keep going off.
The only truly captivating part of the entire presentation is an illegible graphic that spastically bounces up and down to demonstrate the fluctuations in average temperatures across the millennia.
The science presented is near impossible to follow.
But it doesn’t matter what Harper says. The point isn’t that he says the right things but that he is the right person: someone who the crowd can trust (former director of energy at the Geological Survey of Canada) and presenting in the right place (after a tasty meal and while sitting among people who look and think like you).
Levant — the star of the event — is announced as someone who’s been deemed by various publications as the “most irritating” and “talking head you’d most like to silence.” Each “achievement” is greeted with a raucous applause. The emcee, Michelle Sterling, clarifies that “I didn’t write this, by the way, they gave this to me.”
Of course she didn’t. Levant is a perfectly composed character. It’s very tricky to discern what he actually believes and what he plays up for a profit.
Either way, his intro as a “rebel” perfectly serves his cause: he’s an iconoclast representing the few who refuse to believe in human-caused climate change (just because a vast majority of scientists happen to).
Levant has no specific focus in his sermons. There’s certainly a thematic goal though: building a staggeringly convincing enemy-oriented narrative by pointing out the hypocrisy, insensitivity and alleged anti-Albertan nature of government and environmental organizations.
In the span of half-hour, he hops from slamming Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi for the Uber debacle, to ridiculing hemp rope bags, to noting that forest fires are natural, to linking environmental efforts with energy poverty, degrowth and deindustrialization (which inevitably led to a Unabomber comparison), to charting foreign donations to Canadian environmental non-profits.
Anyone who has seen Levant speak before knows the drill.
A standing ovation serves as a brief punctuation between his speech and Q&A session. Two mid-life-crisis-aged men in the washroom exchange thoughts about how “our governments are crazy,” “they’re a waste of our time and the country’s time” and how “Ralph Klein’s sacrifice” is being forgotten.
Levant’s responses to questions from the audience such as “why can’t Albertans oust the NDP?” and “why won’t governments stand up for Canada” hones in on hyper-specifics. The mainstream environmental movement’s take on GMOs is ridiculed. We’re made of carbon, we eat carbon, we exhale carbon.
He makes a fart joke (“I buy carbon credits for when I toot”). The “dairy cartel” isn’t taxed as the oil industry is even though its product — cattle — emit massive amounts of methane.
It’s a spellbinding performance. The crowd occasionally responds to Levant with applause and to the targeted enemies with boos (for an ostensibly tax-averse crowd, they take the reduction of the province’s firefighting budget very, very seriously). The energy in the room can be described as nothing less than spiritual in nature.
There’s an unshakable sense of unity and drive, which likely has something to do with the fact everyone’s: a) white; b) rich; and c) feel persecuted by people concerned about climate change.
But it’s a force that must be acknowledged by climate change activists.
It’s not enough to dismiss Levant and the so-called Friends of Science as fringe groups that simply misconstrue data and graphs and decontextualized policy decisions to suit their mandates.
Of course, they do indeed do that. But such entities also tap into very powerful and deep-seated emotions — trust and pride, anxiety and anger, hyper-awareness of environmentalists who also fly around the world in private jets.
Good luck beating those back with facts.
Image: The Rebel/Facebook