A Look into Canada’s Most Controversial Environmental Organization

What is Energy Probe and why is it anti-climate change?

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Jan 31 2017, 4:56pm

Lead image via Facebook

Daryn Caister was like a lot of coffee drinkers in Toronto. Young and socially conscious, he got his daily fix at the Green Beanery across from Honest Ed's in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. A popular café advertising organic "fair trade" beans, it also boasted that profits went to the environmental work conducted by Probe International.

For Caister, a 34-year-old chef and videographer, the café became his regular stop, in part because of its proximity to his home, but also because of its apparent ethical superiority to the corporate coffee shops that line the streets of Toronto. Upon closer examination, however, the environmentally-friendly façade of the Green Beanery began to wilt. Caister spoke to a barista about appearing on his CIUT radio show, The Green Majority, to discuss the café's work. "The employee was the one who told me that they were terrible and that what they were doing was actually quite upsetting," recalls Caister. It turned out that Probe International is a division of the larger Energy Probe Research Foundation, which in recent years has gained notoriety for its anti-science agenda of climate change denial. Since this inconvenient revelation, Caister has not set foot in the café.

Tonight, the Green Beanery will play host to a debate over vaccines (despite the science being settled) between a well-known Toronto psychiatrist and Lawrence Soloman, a controversial columnist for the National Post and the founder of the Energy Probe Research Foundation.

Green Beanery in Toronto (photo via Facebook)

The Energy Probe Research Foundation maintains a strange space within Canada's environmental community. Beginning with a single division devoted to domestic energy policy (Energy Probe), it has grown into a hydra-like body that, among other things, addresses foreign aid and investment (Probe International), government policies relating to Canadian natural resources (Environment Probe), and regulatory matters that affect cities (the Urban Renaissance Institute). These tangentially connected operations are linked by two things: a common emphasis on property rights and free markets, and Lawrence Solomon.             

The Energy Probe Research Foundation has been active since the early 1980s, and Solomon's work within Toronto's environmental community predates that. While the foundation has some renown, in recent years this pales in comparison to the notoriety generated by Solomon. Billing himself as "one of Canada's leading environmentalists," Solomon's free market environmentalism has always been viewed with suspicion. However, he completed the transformation from an environmental outlier advocating on behalf of free trade, deregulation, and the privatization of our natural resources, to an outright pariah due to the release of his 2008 book The Deniers, which established him as one of the world's leading climate change skeptics. For evidence of Solomon's strange stance on environmental issues, one need look no further than his comments in the conservative National Review where he argued that the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty dedicated to reducing carbon emissions, was "the single biggest threat to the global environment."          

Any examination of the Energy Probe Research Foundation must begin with the realization that it is inextricably linked to the work of Lawrence Solomon. While there was an Energy Probe–the division, not the foundation–before Solomon, what existed in the 1970s bore little resemblance to what exists now. Having conducted interviews with Solomon and a dozen of his former colleagues, I've come away with a better understanding of how the Energy Probe Research Foundation was created in his image while utilizing his gift for rhetoric, a talent for securing funding—albeit from questionable sources, such as the oil industry—and a never-waning vision of free markets and property rights as an all-encompassing panacea.

Lawrence Solomon first became involved in the environmental movement in the late 1970s. A Romanian-born journalist with no training in ecological matters, he secured a Canada Council of the Arts grant to write The Conserver Solution (1978), a treatise that argued technological and policy innovations could lead to an improved environment without sacrificing our high standard of living. As he explained, "I approached Energy Probe and Pollution Probe," two sister organizations operating in Toronto under the Pollution Probe Foundation umbrella, "to see if I could collaborate with them in producing the book. I thought that having them as a resource would help me in writing my book." They agreed, taking him on as a volunteer. The Conserver Solution, featuring the organization's endorsement on the dust jacket and cover page, went on to become a critical success and a bestseller.

"One thing about Larry [Soloman]—he was very good at getting funds."

Right away, Solomon created controversy. Chris Conway, an Energy Probe staffer at the time, told me that there was considerable discussion about whether the Pollution Probe Foundation endorsement would appear on the final product. "It's creative, it's insightful, it's funny. It's a lot of really good things, but it didn't present the themes and the issues the way at the time a lot of people thought Pollution Probe wanted to present its public face. It's a little too much of a polemic, a little too casual with the facts."

Offending passages included proposals to eliminate the minimum wage and social welfare programs—matters generally unrelated to the environment, but obvious points of contention for a free market enthusiast—that appeared alongside more mainstream ideas about reducing waste and promoting energy conservation. Given the prevailing notion within Pollution Probe and Energy Probe that government intervention in environmental matters was of the utmost importance, there was talk of the organizations withdrawing their formal endorsement of the book. Eventually they relented, under the premise that they should be the conveyors of fresh ideas. Following the book's release, Solomon continued at Energy Probe as a full-time volunteer.

As the 1970s came to a close, the Pollution Probe Foundation was in a state of financial disarray, in large part due to the general economic malaise of the time. Funding for programs was low and there was a constant struggle to meet the payroll. (A non-hierarchical organization, all Pollution Probe Foundation employees received $600 a month.)

Dissension between Energy Probe and Pollution Probe began to rear its head. While there were three fundraisers on staff, there was a perception that they spent most of their time working on Pollution Probe initiatives. This led Solomon, still a volunteer at Energy Probe, to advocate in favour of separating from the Pollution Probe Foundation. As he told me, "I think some people were afraid of losing the $600 [monthly salary]. It wasn't much, but it was something." By the close of 1980 the group had split, and the following year they incorporated with charitable status as the Energy Probe Research Foundation. (While there was some talk of adopting a name more distinguishable from Pollution Probe, Solomon told me that "we also feared having to re-introduce ourselves with a brand new name." The similarity of these two Toronto-based ENGOs' names has resulted in much confusion over the years.)

"He's a right-wing ideologue who is [also] a brilliant writer."

Independence led to greater financial security for the staff at Energy Probe. "One thing about Larry [Solomon]—he was very good at getting funds," former co-worker David Brooks told me in an interview. "And he was getting funds from new sources, like oil companies. They [the oil companies] thought they had found their environmentalist." Not coincidentally, at this time Energy Probe launched a campaign "to educate Canadians to the social, environmental and economic benefits of less regulation in the petroleum field."

Solomon's ability to secure funding led to increased influence within the organization. This, in turn, led Brooks to tender his resignation in 1982. "He's a right-wing ideologue who is [also] a brilliant writer," Brooks explained. While Brooks enjoyed his early years at Energy Probe, which featured a diversity of approaches, he recalls that as Solomon's influence grew "it became increasingly less an environmental organization than an economic one." Chris Conway also left Energy Probe at this time, citing discomfort with the increased focus on free market solutions. Whenever there was staff turnover, they were replaced by those that were ideologically in tune with Solomon.

By the early 1980s Energy Probe had evolved into a veritable libertarian stronghold. This position is clearly illustrated in Solomon's 1984 book Breaking Up Ontario Hydro's Monopoly, in which he argued the case for privatizing the province's publicly-owned utilities provider. Four years later, when the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement was signed, Energy Probe was the lone ENGO that supported the deal. While most environmentalists feared fewer regulations would result in free rein for polluters, Energy Probe's suspicion of government planners was in line with the neo-liberal agenda that brought Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney to office.

The Energy Probe Research Foundation continued to carve out its ecocapitalist niche throughout the 1980s. In a move that saw it expand beyond its original focus on the Canadian energy sector it became a fierce critic of Canadian foreign development policy. Finding many of Energy Probe's supporters were confused by its interest overseas, in 1986 it created a separate Probe International project under the Energy Probe Research Foundation umbrella.

Solomon's interest in the marketplace would not be confined to policy work. In the late 1980s he established a short-lived mutual fund that invested in "green" companies. In 2004 he founded the Green Beanery, the Annex café whose profits continue to fund the work of Probe International.

In 2008 Solomon took his most controversial step yet with the release of The Deniers. Based on a series of columns written for the National Post (a newspaper that gives a tremendous amount of space to climate change deniers), the book purported to highlight research that dissented from the scientific consensus that climate change, caused by human activity, is a severe threat to the planet. Dismissed by environmentalists and scientists, The Deniers nonetheless enjoyed brisk sales due to support from right wing circles in Canada, the United States, and beyond that embraced it as proof that the issue is a liberal hoax.

While the ensuing fame increased demand for Solomon as a speaker and "expert" panelist within the fossil-fuel funded skeptic community, two things jump out as particularly strange about the book. In the introduction, Solomon notes that Energy Probe had long been engaged in the fight against climate change. His inspiration for writing the book came from a co-worker that casually mentioned one day that the science on the matter had been settled. Solomon took this as a rhetorical challenge, and began searching for evidence to cast doubt on the statement. Second, scientists whose work was profiled in the National Post columns and the ensuing book were quick to point out that their research had been misrepresented by the author, leading to at least one public apology from Solomon.

Four decades into his environmental career, Lawrence Solomon remains busy. Today, the sixty-eight year old is the managing director at the Energy Probe Research Foundation, while also serving as executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. (At present the other divisions are Probe International, Environment Probe, the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, and the Consumer Policy Institute, all of which are based out of its red brick headquarters on leafy Brunswick Avenue.) He also writes weekly opinion pieces for the Post where his topics range from critiques of foreign aid to spirited defenses of the anti-vaccination movement. His work also reaches beyond Canadian borders, as he serves as a Policy Expert with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based out of Arlington Hills, Illinois. (Coincidentally, the Heartland Institute's position denying the reality of human-induced climate change harkens back to its work in the 1990s, funded by Philip Morris, that disputed the negative effects of second-hand smoke.)

Clearly there's an audience for what Solomon, and the Energy Probe Research Foundation, is shilling, but perhaps tellingly, he leaves behind a trail of former coworkers that are critical of the ideologically-charged takeover he mounted of the formerly moderate Energy Probe. Barry Spinner, whose time at the organization overlapped with Solomon, described the latter's creeping power grab as "a kidnapping through his intellectual ability." But the root of their critiques echo the words of David Brooks. "Some of the Pollution Probers, and a number of the Energy Probers, saw the simplicity of it [market-based solutions] and just absorbed that as if that was all there was to it, that the whole thing was just getting the prices right and letting government get out of the way." Brooks, who holds a masters degree in geology and a PhD in economics, noted that "I'm very much in favour of using market instruments," but was quick to add the famous statement from John Maynard Keynes: "The market is an excellent servant, but a terrible master."

Back in the Annex, coffee drinkers continue to patronize the Green Beanery. That said, the word has started to spread about its dubious environmental credibility as a result of media coverage and discussion on the Toronto subreddit. Nonetheless, environmental do-gooders that were taken in by the café's green market continue to feel betrayed.

"I felt really dumb for not checking further earlier, but I got caught too, just assuming they were doing good work because I never had any reason to doubt it," Caister explained to me. "Much less that they were fuelling science denial."

Ryan O'Connor is the author of 'The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario' (UBC Press), which won the Ontario Historical Society's J.J. Talman Prize in 2016.

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