(Mis)understanding Vivian Krause

This column is an opinion from Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Vivian Krause, the erstwhile detective who inspired Premier Jason Kenney’s beleaguered inquiry into un-Albertan activities, was back in the news this week.

A series of Twitter posts seemed to cast doubt on what many have assumed was her narrative all along: that U.S. commercial interests were somehow behind the now-infamous Tar Sands Campaign to slow or halt development of Alberta’s oilsands. 

And yet, Krause was emphatic that no such narrative was ever present in her work, as tempting as such a link might be

How does this happen? What Krause has said should be reasonably clear, right? Not so fast. The confusion lies in that what she’s said isn’t what people heard.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which describes the ways people make judgments, helps us understand how Krause came to be so misunderstood.

What Kahneman calls the availability heuristic holds that people make judgments about difficult questions by instead answering easier questions. In one of his examples, the question of whether to invest in Ford stock might be substituted with “Do I like Ford cars?”

Planting seeds

Krause’s research leads people to the neighbourhood of a conclusion, but she doesn’t give it to them. She doesn’t have to.

Consider a tweet from Krause on May 20 which stated that, “The Tar Sands Campaign has kept Canadian oil landlocked. This benefits U.S. oil companies but that doesn’t mean the oil companies funded the Tar Sands Campaign.” The seeds have been planted. The audience is primed.

Next, in the same tweet, we’re told that “The foundations that have funded the Tar Sands Campaign have ties to U.S. oil companies. But, again, that doesn’t mean the oil companies were behind the Tar Sands Campaign from the start.” 

Krause has made two answers to related questions available to the reader. And, as she has said herself, she’s got a pretty good idea where they will end up.

As she told the Canadian Press this week, “people look at me hoping to hear what they think would make sense, which is that the oil companies are behind it. I tell them all the time, ‘Sorry, guys, no. I don’t see that.'” 

What she does see are data that show that U.S. oil output grew more rapidly than output in Canada, and a multimillion-dollar campaign to landlock Canadian oil, funded by foundations with links to U.S. oil companies. Does she not expect people to put these pieces of information together in a particular way?

‘It sounds logical’

Even as she expresses more shock and chagrin than Jackie Chiles in an episode of Seinfeld, she’s reminding people that the conspiracy makes sense.

“People have jumped to a conclusion that is unsubstantiated. I can see why. It sounds logical. But you can’t make that assumption,” she is quoted as saying in the Canadian Press article.

Krause is holding the high ground by performatively not jumping to conclusions without a smoking gun, but, at the same time, she might as well be holding up a big sign with an arrow pointing to a particular conclusion. Even as she is reminding readers that she’s seen no evidence to substantiate the conspiracy, she’s introducing the idea, repeating it, and validating it as a logical conclusion. 

She might say that she has “seen no evidence of funding from commercial oil interests,” but Krause should know from experience that those reading her words will add the word “yet,” almost without knowing that they’ve done so. After all, if nothing shady was buried beneath the surface, surely a public inquiry would not be needed, right? And Krause is quick to remind people that she long ago called for an inquiry to take place. 

Krause has, without question, brought to the public’s attention a wide array of evidence that U.S. foundations with environmental mandates have provided funds to environmental groups on both sides of the border to fight activities that cause climate change. That should hardly be surprising. 

The oilsands, a large and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, is dependent at least in part on new pipelines and investment from foreign companies. This makes the oilsands a natural target for an environmental campaign.

But Krause’s work has also driven a narrative of a disproportionate focus on Canadian oil extraction by U.S. environmental groups. That’s happened not only because of what Krause has said, but also because of the way people think and process the information they see, and the selection of information Krause provides, leads her readers to that conclusion.

If you’re Canadian, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of the Keystone XL pipeline — it’s a near certainty. And, you’ve also likely heard about the environmental objections to oilsands extraction and to pipeline projects. You can’t avoid it.  

You’ve probably heard a lot less about domestic environmental issues in the U.S. that are not directly connected to Canada.

Pipe ready to be used for the construction of the Canadian leg of the Keystone XL in Alberta near the town of Oyen. The pipeline, and the broader oilsands campaign, was far from the only campaign undertaken by U.S. environmentalists or funded by U.S. foundations. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

When Krause asserts, as she did last week, that environmentalists “didn’t say boo” when a U.S. ban on crude oil exports was removed, most Canadians will subconsciously evaluate that statement using a more easily available one: have I heard about U.S. environmentalists opposing the crude oil export ban? The answer will almost certainly be no because it was not big news here. To borrow again from Kahneman, we’re predisposed to think that “what we see is all there is.”

Keystone XL and the broader oilsands campaign was far from the only campaign undertaken by U.S. environmentalists or funded by U.S. foundations. The removal of the crude oil export ban was a major concern for U.S. NGOs, including environmental and labour organizations. In fact, 350 organizations, including environmental and labour groups, banded together to oppose the change. They are still arguing for President Joe Biden to reverse that decision.

The same is true for widespread campaigns in the U.S. to reduce the use of coal-fired electricity. These campaigns are massive, they just don’t make front-page news in Canada. 

We ignore what we don’t see

That we tend to ignore what we don’t see is also why Krause’s information on charitable funding has been so effective at mobilizing people to feel as though we’re under disproportionate attack.

When Krause reminds us that “Canadian funding of environmental campaigns are a pittance compared to the grants from American funders,” or when she details fund flows which, since 2009, account for “at least $40 million to organizations involved in anti-pipeline activism in the U.S., Canada and in Europe,” her readers are likely to reach certain conclusions.

Many of her readers won’t ask questions like, “how does this amount of money compare to the flow of funds from proponents, foreign and domestic?” They might not ask whether this is a large share of the funding provided to environmental groups overall. And her readers generally won’t know the overall size of the environmental sector, nor the size of U.S. and Canadian charitable funds. Instead, they’ll be prone to substitute answers to easier questions like “is $40 million a lot of money,” and “should foreign money influence our politics?”

Perhaps, they might simply ask themselves whether they like the oil and gas industry.

In reality, $40 million in funding over eight years (2009-2017 was Krause’s sample) is both a lot of money and a tiny fraction of the total money spent, either by project proponents promoting pipelines and oilsands extraction, or of the foundation grants devoted to climate change over that period. 

As Sandy Garossino has painstakingly documented, “1,800 private foundations committed more than $4.9 billion specifically to climate initiatives,” with only about $40 million going to Canadian environmental groups.

Of $2 billion in foundation grants to Canadian non-profits, Garossino finds that “only $40 million, or about two per cent, has gone to pipeline opposition.”

While Garossino’s work confirms the order of magnitude of Krause’s findings of funding to groups loosely organized under the Tar Sands Campaign banner, those figures have a lot less punch in context. 

The easy answer

Think this doesn’t matter? Consider how differently you’d answer these two questions: 

  1. Is $40 million a lot of money? 
  2. Is $40 million out of $4.9 billion (or $2 billion, if you prefer) a lot of money?

Krause’s approach invites you to answer the first, and she generally doesn’t give her readers the data to answer the second (see, for example, here, where the flow-through of funds to Canadian ENGOs is clearly documented, but the total funds dispersed overall is omitted). 

Given how our minds work, without the added context, we’ll generally default to the easier, intuitive answer without seeking out more information. Or, to borrow again from Kahneman, “the confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”

Those who feel under attack, who have seen projects cancelled and delayed in Canada, and who don’t see the breadth of environmental campaigns continentally or globally, will be predisposed to a feeling of victimhood, which Krause’s information readily affirms.

It’s really no wonder that people think that Vivian Krause has spent years advocating for a conspiracy theory of a disproportionate attack on Alberta’s oil and gas industry by foundations with ties to the U.S. oil industry. She’s given them all the pieces of the puzzle and she gives the appearance of understanding how people have been putting those pieces together.

If it really bothers her, she could give people the information they need in ways which would allow them to make better judgments.


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