Guest Commentary: Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Documentary Peddles Dangerous Climate Denial

Share:

The YouTube film offers outdated and wildly misleading information on renewable energy, sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection.

By Dana Nuccitelli

Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates have long been allies in the fight to keep unchecked industrial growth from irreversibly ruining Earth’s climate and threatening the future of human civilization.

In their new YouTube documentary “Planet of the Humans,” director Jeff Gibbs and producer Michael Moore argue for splitting the two sides. Their misleading, outdated, and scientifically sophomoric dismissal of renewable energy is perhaps the most dangerous form of climate denial, eroding support for renewable energy as a critical climate solution.

“Planet of the Humans” by the end of April had more than 4.7 million views and fairly high scores at the movie critic review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The documentary has received glowing reviews from numerous climate “deniers” whose names are familiar to those in the climate community, including Steve Milloy, Marc Morano, and James Delingpole. Some environmentalists who have seen the movie are beginning to oppose wind and solar projects that are absolutely necessary to slow climate change.

The film by these two “progressive” filmmakers may succeed where Fox News and right-wing talk radio have failed: to undermine humanity’s last best hope for positive change. As energy journalist Ketan Joshi wrote, the film is “selling far-right, climate-denier myths from nearly a decade ago to left-wing environmentalists in the 2020s.”

The film follows Gibbs as he visits various green technology sites in the United States and ostensibly learns that each one is just as bad as the fossil fuel infrastructure that it would replace. Unfortunately, the movie is littered with misleading, skewed, and outdated scenes.

“Planet of the Humans”‘ approach is fundamentally flawed – Gibbs focuses almost exclusively on the imperfections of technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, biomass, and electric cars without considering their ability to reduce carbon and other pollutants. The film suggests that because no source of energy is perfect, all are bad, thus implying that the very existence of human civilization is the problem while offering little in the way of alternative solutions.

A badly outdated portrait of solar and wind

In an interview with Reuters, Michael Moore summarized the premise of the film: “I assumed solar panels would last forever. I didn’t know what went into the making of them.”

It’s true. Solar panels and wind turbines don’t last forever (though they do last several decades), and like every other industrial product, they require mining and manufacturing of raw materials. Sadly, that’s about as deep as the film delves into quantifying the environmental impacts of renewable energy versus fossil fuels. In fact, the misinformation in the film is at times much worse than ignorance.

In one scene, author and film co-producer Ozzie Zehner falsely asserts, “You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you’re getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.”

That’s monumentally wrong. A 2017 study in Nature Energy found that when accounting for manufacturing and construction, the lifetime carbon footprints of solar, wind, and nuclear power are about one-twentieth of those of coal and natural gas, even when the latter include expensive carbon capture and storage technology. The energy produced during the operation of a solar panel and wind turbine is 26 and 44 times greater than the energy needed to build and install them, respectively. There are many life-cycle assessment studies arriving at similar conclusions.

The film’s case is akin to arguing that because fruit contains sugar, eating strawberries is no healthier than eating a cheesecake.

It’s true that the carbon footprint of renewable energy is not zero. But the film somehow fails to mention that it’s far lower than the fossil fuel alternatives, instead falsely suggesting (with zero supporting evidence) that renewables are just as bad.

The closest defense of that argument comes when Zehner claims that wind and solar energy cannot displace coal, and instead retired coal power plants are being replaced by even larger natural gas plants.

In reality, annual coal power generation in the U.S. has declined by about half (over 1 trillion kilowatt-hours) over the past decade, and it’s true that natural gas has picked up about two-thirds of that slack (670 billion kWh). But growth in renewables has accounted for the other one-third (370 billion kWh).*

As a result, power sector carbon emissions in the U.S. have fallen by one-third since 2008 and continue to decline steadily. In fact, electricity is the only major sector in the U.S. that’s achieving significant emissions reductions.

It’s true that natural gas is a fossil fuel. To reach zero emissions, it must be replaced by renewables with storage and smart grids. But thus far the path to grid decarbonization in the U.S. has been a success story that the film somehow portrays as a failure. Moreover, that decarbonization could be accelerated through policies like pricing carbon pollution, but the film does not once put a single second of thought into policy solutions.

In perhaps its most absurd scene, Gibbs and Zehner visit a former solar facility in Daggett, California, built in the mid-1980s and replaced 30 years later. Gazing upon the sand-covered landscape of the former facility, Gibbs declares in an ominous tone, “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at: a solar dead zone.”

Daggett is located in the Mojave Desert. Sand is the natural landscape. Solar farms don’t create dead zones; in fact, some plants thrive under the shade provided by solar panels.

It suddenly dawned on me how hard the film was trying to portray clean energy in a negative light.

A shallow dismissal of electric vehicles

In another scene, Gibbs travels to a General Motors facility in Lansing, Michigan, circa 2010, as GM showcased its then-new Chevy Volt plug-in electric hybrid vehicle. Gibbs interviews a representative from the local municipal electric utility provider, who notes that they generate 95% of their supply by burning coal, and that the power to charge the GM facility’s EVs will not come from renewables in the near future.

That is the full extent of the discussion of EVs in the film. Viewers are left to assume that because these cars are charged by burning coal, they’re just greenwashing. In reality, because of the high efficiency of electric motors, an electric car charged entirely by burning coal still produces less carbon pollution than an internal combustion engine car (though more than a hybrid). The U.S. Department of Energy has a useful tool for comparing carbon emissions between EVs, plug-in hybrids, conventional hybrids, and gasoline-powered cars for each state. In Michigan, on average, EVs are the cleanest option of all, as is the case for the national average power grid. In West Virginia, with over 90% electricity generated from coal, hybrids are the cleanest option, but EVs are still cleaner than gasoline cars.

In short, EVs are an improvement over gasoline-powered cars everywhere, and their carbon footprints will continue to shrink as renewables expand to supply more of the power grid.

A valid critique of wood biomass

The film devotes a half hour to the practice of burning trees for energy. That’s one form of biomass, which also includes burning wood waste, garbage, and biofuels. Last year, 1% of U.S. electricity was generated by burning wood, but it accounted for 30% of the film run time.

In fairness, Europe is a different story, where wood biomass accounts for around 5% of electricity generation, and which imports a lot of wood chips from America. It’s incentivized because the European Union considers burning wood to be carbon neutral, and it can thus be used to meet climate targets. That’s because new trees can be planted to replace those removed, and the EU assumes the wood being burned would have decayed and released its stored carbon anyway.

There are numerous problems with those assumptions, one of which is unavoidable: time. Burning trees is close to carbon neutral once a replacement tree grows to sufficient maturity to recapture the lost carbon, but that takes many decades.

In the meantime, the carbon released into the atmosphere accelerates the climate crisis at a time when slashing emissions is increasingly urgent. That’s why climate scientists are increasingly calling on policymakers to stop expanding this practice. So has 350.org founder Bill McKibben since 2016, despite his depiction in the film as a villainous proponent of clearcutting forests to burn for energy.

It’s complicated, but the carbon footprint of biomass depends on where the wood comes from. Burning waste (including waste wood) as biomass that would decay anyway is justifiable, but also generally only practical at a relatively small scale. A more detailed investigation of the wood biomass industry could make for a worthwhile documentary. It’s still a small-time player, but it does need to stay that way.

The bottom line

Gibbs asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”

Why not? Industrial civilization has a non-zero climate and environmental footprint, but the impact of green technologies like EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels is much smaller than the alternatives. They represent humanity’s best chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The filmmakers call for an end to limitless economic growth and consumption. It’s difficult to envision that goal being achieved anytime soon, but even if it is, human civilization will continue to exist and require energy.

To avert a climate crisis, that energy must be supplied by the clean renewable technologies pilloried in the film. To expand on the earlier analogy, the filmmakers seem to believe we should improve nutrition not by eating healthier foods like strawberries, but rather by eating a bit less cheesecake.

Like Fox News and other propaganda vehicles, the film presents one biased perspective via carefully chosen voices, virtually all of whom are comfortable white men. It applies an environmental purity test that can seem convincing for viewers lacking expertise in the topic.

Any imperfect technology – which is every technology – is deemed bad. It’s a clear example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

In reality, this movie is the enemy of humanity’s last best chance to save itself and countless other species from unchecked climate change through a transition to cleaner technologies.

This article is being republished with the author’s permission. It was first published in Yale Climate Connections. Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist and climate journalist with a master’s degree in physics from UC Davis


Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$USD
Sign up for

Share:

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

36 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Documentary Peddles Dangerous Climate Denial”

  1. Alan Miller

    Planet of the Humans is a fantastic film.  No it’s not perfect, but it needed to be done.

    Daggett is located in the Mojave Desert. Sand is the natural landscape. Solar farms don’t create dead zones; in fact, some plants thrive under the shade provided by solar panels.

    This is exactly the kind of sh*t from radical climate activists that caused this film to be made.  I’ve been part of a group that has been fighting corporate solar projects in the desert for decades.  The desert does not heal the way say a forest can.  The forest will regrow to mature trees in a few decades.  The desert has such slow mechanisms of repair that a desert playa scraped for a solar plant may not heal for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  And many solar power plants are not solar panels . . . they are mirrors, and turn slow-to-replenesh desert aquifers into steam and dry up springs — in the desert this kills regions of life.

    Deserts are full of life, not “sand is the natural landscape” — the typical BS of the radical climate activist.  Our group works with natives, environmental groups (often split between climate zealots and sane people), local citizens — all of whom know the beauty of the desert and must protect it from idiots who see “nature” only as areas with trees.  The film is also important in that it considers whole life-cycles of energy sources, not just “solar is clean”, and doesn’t buy that ‘zero emissions’ often means ‘at the tailpipe’, but ignore all the damage done down the line.  Are the analyses perfect?  I doubt it, but it’s a conversation climate zealots often don’t like to have.

    The battle cry of those of us who believe in solar, but not on giant corporate desert farms (or local Davis agricultural farms) is:  “Solar on rooftops, not on the backs of desert tortoises!”

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      Environmental groups have been sounding the alarm regarding solar farms in sensitive deserts for years.

      I don’t know if they have regarding agricultural/other lands, which are not necessarily in a desert or in a natural state.  But, I would think that similar issues can arise.

      In any case, business interests often look to use public lands (in general), rather than private lands to make a profit. Reminds me of the controversy regarding cattle (and oyster farms) on public lands in Pt. Reyes, among a host of other similar issues.

      (Not to mention mining, oil extraction, logging, etc. on other public lands.)

    2. Bill Marshall

      “Solar on rooftops, not on the backs of desert tortoises!”

      Biologically, as I recall, tortoises are reptiles… incapable of self regulating body temp… so, arguably, tortoises use their ‘backs’ to use solar power to warm up during the day… deserts are basically defined by lack of moisture… but north American deserts are also known for hot days, cold nights…  they also use their shells (backs) as a “rooftop” in inclement weather… or protection from predators…

      Not a great metaphor…  at least as stated…

    3. Richard McCann

      Alan

      Go through the southern Salinas Valley or the west side of the southern San Joaquin Valley to see REAL environmental damage from oil and gas production. While solar power isn’t spotless, its consequences are much less dire. To be honest, short of completely shutting down the economy suddenly, even beyond what we are doing today, we have choose our devil for a while. Moving to distributed rooftop solar is one route to limiting that damage, but that hasn’t been truly cost effective until the last five years.

      Also, the rate of new solar plants in the desert has slowed dramatically. (I pointed this out while working on the DRECP for the CEC 2011-2014 after almost 20,000 MW had already been sited and were under construction.) We would be foolish to take those down because they are fairly inert once in place, and the damage from decommissioning activity would be greater than from staying in place, to say nothing of the increase in GHG emissions that would hasten the demise of those same deserts.

        1. Alan Miller

          Actually, I should give exception to concentrated solar power plants that are not solar panels, but use desert groundwater to create steam, and those that use natural gas to keep the heat-exchange hot at night.  Those should be decommissioned.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I’m not sure if this is entirely a “lefty” or “righty” issue.  Personally, I’ve always thought that those focused solely on climate change are missing a bigger picture.  I suspect that this is due to all of the attention that issue has received.

      But yeah, how much energy does it take to make a Prius?  And, is it actually better to destroy a working, older car (as the state incentivized, a few years ago)?

      Michael Moore is an interesting guy, though. I seem to recall that he (correctly) predicted Trump being elected, and his eventual impeachment (before he was even in office).

      1. Richard McCann

        Here’s a link from DOE on net lifecycle GHG emissions from EVs. https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions.html

        And another from Carnegie Mellon: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/044007/ampdf

        However, these analyses are based on an important fallacious assumption–that EVs use the “average” mix of regional electricity. In fact what happens is that EVs are a NEW electric load that requires the addition of a NEW electricity generation source. Coal has been a declining source of generation for more than a decade and that decline has recently accelerated. While natural gas has made up some of that generation, renewables have supplied a large proportion. It is that added NEW mix that represents the generation source for EVs. In the West, that is almost 100% renewables–there have been almost no new gas generation built here in a decade. In the East, it’s about 1/3 renewables (and growing) and 2/3 natural gas. So on net, the GHG emission footprint is much better for EVs.

        1. Bill Marshall

          It’s not the operating consumption… it lies in the creation of the vehicle… not simple… look at it holistically… creating/mining the materials, transferring them to manufacture, manufacture, use of energy to get the employees to the manufacturing site… transporting the vehicles to dealerships, etc., etc…

          It’s not the operating consumption. It is not simple… it is complex…

        2. Bill Marshall

          But, it is still a good idea to migrate to EV’s or use human-powered modes… half of our ‘fleet’ is a EV-hybrid… the other is a manual transmission ‘compact’, that requires a tank of gas about every 2.4 months…

          Oh, and about 35% of trips are bicycle or walking… for a household of 3… ~ 2% was public transit…

        3. Alan Miller

          I resent the use of the term “renewables”, as it doesn’t take into account the full cycle of effects/damage.  Lumping everything green-ISH into a category can easily become greenwashing.

    2. Ron Oertel

      ” . . . thus implying that the very existence of human civilization is the problem while offering little in the way of alternative solutions.”

      Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, at least.  But, it does seem to suggest an “alternative solution” that isn’t quite so extreme.

      I’ve always suspected that it would eventually come full-circle, back to that logical conclusion.

      And one which might provide a little room (and unmolested space) on the planet, for life other than humans.

      Just remembered “Gilligan”. Now we know why the “real” one stayed on the island.

      1. Alan Miller

        Just remembered “Gilligan”. Now we know why the “real” one stayed on the island.

        I love dark humor, but that was too much even for me . . .

        1. Ron Oertel

          I didn’t think of it as all that dark, but let’s just hope he wasn’t hit by a “Prius”.

          (Actually, that might fit the theme of the film.)

        2. Ron Oertel

          Me, too.  My comment was not entirely intended to be humorous.

          I was surprised that the Vanguard didn’t cover this story, at all.  It has generated interest.

          Also seems questionable that the authorities allowed the “civilization vs. nature” collision to take place. Although I understand they might not have tranquilized due to fear of drowning.

          On a broader level, I wonder if the bear wandered into town as a result of reduced traffic in the first place (due to coronavirus). As coyotes and other animals are doing, in places like San Francisco.

      2. Richard McCann

        The proposed solution of “population control” isn’t a feasible solution within the time frame required. The world’s population growth is already slowing thanks to the spread of education to women, it just takes time. Further, it would require rapid DEPOPULATION from the current level of 7 billion people. Will  you be the first to step up to sacrifice yourself so humanity can survive?

        1. Ron Oertel

          The film doesn’t actually focus much on that “solution”.

          What the film does is to point out the folly of putting all of one’s faith in the same system that created the problem.  It then shows examples of how that’s not working out.

          Regarding “sacrificing” oneself, we all will, eventually.  (Interesting that you brought that up, because one of the themes of the film is that we are making mistakes due to fear of, and refusal to accept ultimate mortality.  I found that rather thought-provoking.)

          Have you watched the film?

    3. Ron Oertel

      The filmmakers call for an end to limitless economic growth and consumption.

      Ah – missed that, the first time.

      Yeap.

      Starting to restore my faith in humanity. I’ll plan on watching this.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Well, I never heard of this film before today, and now I’m starting to realize why this has “stirred the pot” – apparently quite effectively.

    “The only reason we had been force fed the story ‘climate change plus renewables equals we’re saved’ is because billionaires, bankers and corporations profit from it.”

    “Depicted in the film are a range of ways The Koch Brothers profit from green energy.”

    https://www.salon.com/2020/05/01/why-planet-of-the-humans-michael-moores-new-film-about-green-energy-is-so-controversial/

    Apparently, there’s even a lawsuit related to this:

    “But the effort to gag Planet of the Humans reveals something more sinister: the refusal by leading climate activists and academics to have an honest discussion about the limits of renewable energy and why renewables alone cannot save us from climate change or solve the problem of energy poverty.”

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbryce/2020/04/30/stanford-professor-cant-muzzle-planet-of-the-humans-must-pay-defendants-legal-fees-in-slapp-suit/#4c7aa1a4e0ac

    1. Ron Oertel

      In reading the article above more carefully, it appears that the lawsuit is not directly related to the film:

      What was Clack’s sin? He, along with nearly two dozen other prominent scientists, debunked the claims that Jacobson was making about – what else? — renewable energy.

      Before delving into the details of the SLAPP suit, it’s worthwhile to recall how Fox used Jacobson’s work to help justify his effort to censor Moore and Gibbs.

       

    2. Richard McCann

       limits of renewable energy and why renewables alone cannot save us from climate change or solve the problem of energy poverty

      Recognizing the limits is VERY different than a complete dismissal as a dismal failure to achieve any gains.

      1. Ron Oertel

        After watching the film, I realized that it (by no means) is suggesting a “complete dismissal” to achieve gains in energy efficiency, and less-impactful technologies.

        This type of allegation (which is reflected by the article, and other critics of the film) appears to be part of the same, reflexive denial of the primary message of the film.

    1. Richard McCann

      An interesting review, but it’s not reviewing the film actually made, but rather wishing that the film had been focused on these issues. Instead the collateral damage the film creates vastly outweighs this deeply hidden message discerned by this review.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The allegation regarding “collateral damage” is also part of the same, reflexive denial of the primary message of the film.

        In fact, the film is pointing out the collateral damage of putting all of one’s faith in capitalism and technology to head-off environmental catastrophe, while failing to acknowledge limits.

        The more “dangerous” part is that this pursuit is being packaged and sold as an environmental solution.

        Have you watched the film?

  3. Ron Oertel

    lefties . . .

    Alan M.  “. . . ain’t what they used to be!”

    I watched the full film last night.  Alan’s observation is mirrored in the film, and is something I’ve increasingly noticed over the years (e.g., in regard to some environmental organizations).

    It’s also mirrored on this blog.

    That is, the full embrace (by some on the left) of capitalism/consumerism, to “solve” environmental problems (which were created by that same system).  And, the corrupting influence that embrace has. (Although – there are significant elements of the “right” represented on that same side, in the film.)

    Perhaps it’s telling that David’s first and only article on this film is a reprint by someone highly critical of the film.

    As noted in one of the links I posted above, this is an important film.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Though it wouldn’t be accurate to describe a “full” embrace of capitalism, by some environmental organizations and others.

      Let’s just say it’s “uncomfortably close”, and that the consequences of that are significant, corruptive (and possibly, dire).  (That’s what I’ve gathered, from the film.)

      The film itself has a rather dark and pessimistic tone.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Don’t like what I have to say?

      The limit has not been applied consistently.

      But, I understand that the purpose of that limit is to allow space for everyone to comment. And, this article wasn’t generating many.

      What can I say – I find this film and the topic interesting.

    2. Keith Olsen

      They haven’t been enforcing the 7 comment rule for weeks.  If it bothers you don’t read someone else’s comments past seven.  How does it affect you anyway?

      Ron, fire away, I always find your comments interesting.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Thanks, my friend.  Same with you.

        Another point is related to government subsidies for “renewable” energy, and the inevitable corruption that can bring.

        Coincidentally, I was just watching the filmmakers’ response to critics:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bop8x24G_o0

        I think we all realized (deep down in our gut) that this type of acknowledgement would arise, at some point. It’s not really about the specifics, it’s about the overall approach.

         

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for