Alberta government cool on controversial climate change speaker

The Alberta government says it was surprised to hear a controversial climate change speaker was booked by an organization that receives provincial funding.

Carbon tax, coal phase-out challenged at agriculture conference

Premier Rachel Notley at the unveiling of Alberta's climate change strategy in November 2015. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

The Alberta government says it was surprised to hear a controversial climate change speaker was booked by an organization that receives provincial funding.

Michelle Stirling, with Friends of Science, said she was paid a $1,000 honorarium to appear as one of the speakers at the 2018 Agricultural Service Board Conference in Grande Prairie Wednesday.

Stirling and her group have made headlines before for their position that humans are only having a small impact on climate change, which they say is mostly being driven by the sun.

"We think that people should be able to discuss these things openly," said Stirling from her Calgary office on Thursday.

Stirling's presentation, titled Climate Plan and Coal Phase-Out Implications, was attended by about 400 delegates at the conference.

Michelle Stirling with Friends of Science says the carbon tax and coal phase-out is going to hit people 'very, very hard.' (Michelle Stirling)

With a message in direct contravention to the Alberta government's policies, the presentation described the benefits of climate policy as "minuscule" and said that studies have shown there are "no health risks due to coal use in Alberta."

"Coal phase-out is costing us billions and billions of dollars," Stirling said. "The carbon tax made coal unaffordable."

Stirling said she was pleasantly surprised with how well her presentation was received by the audience, who she said are already being affected by climate policies.

"If you're driving to town 45 kilometres every other day, you're using gas. All these things cost a fortune. These carbon taxes are really going to hit them very, very hard."

Only one person at the conference asked her whether her organization is funded by the fossil-fuel industry, she said.

It's something she denies, explaining Friends of Science is funded entirely by its memberships, and operates on a budget of about $150,000 a year.

Organizers defend booking

The Agricultural Service Board receives government grants to support farming communities across the province.

Organizers declined to be interviewed but provided an email to CBC News clarifying the idea was to bring in a variety of speakers presenting a range of different views.

"Speakers are engaged to discuss issues relevant to current regional, provincial and national issues or concerns that affect the agricultural industry and rural communities," the statement said.

"The opinions of the speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the hosting committee or attendees. The discussion presented was about social cost of carbon and phasing out coal."

The email said organizers knew in advance the discussion was going to be about the climate plan, the social cost of carbon and phasing out coal.

However, the provincial government was taken by surprise that such content was part of the conference.

"Well, there is obviously some concern that this has happened," said Renato Gandia, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Gandia said that while the ministry provides grants to the Agricultural Service Board, it did not contribute funds to the conference.

In addition, Gandia made it clear the government does not dictate or control the kinds of activities the boards are involved with.

Nonetheless, he said the tone and message of the presentation go against the direction of the government.

"We take climate change seriously. It is a very important policy for this government. In fact, because of this policy we were able to secure two pipelines for this province," Gandia said.

Stirling said her presentation was submitted beforehand to the group that booked her. She insisted her message is one that many support.

"Do we live in a democracy or not? Are we interested in policies that are based in evidence or not? Are we open to public debate on important issues like this?" she said, pointing out the U.S. is heading in the opposite direction.

Follow-up discussions will be happening with the conference organizers as part of the government's regular meetings with its partners, Gandia said.

The focus is likely to be on the importance of the government's climate change policy.

"There are so many benefits that this policy has given to our province," he said.