Michael Moore’s…documentary peddles dangerous #climatedenial — Yale Climate Connections #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Global CO2 emissions by world region 1751 through 2015.

From Yale Climate Connections (Dana Nuccitelli):

The YouTube film offers outdated and wildly misleading information on renewable energy, sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection.

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 Their misleading, outdated, and scientifically sophomoric dismissal of renewable energy is perhaps the most dangerous form of climate denial, eroding support for renewable energy as a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 Unfortunately, the movie is littered with misleading, skewed, and outdated scenes.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. [ed. emphasis mine]

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

ARTICLE Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary peddles dangerous climate denial The YouTube film offers outdated and wildly misleading information on renewable energy, sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection.By Dana Nuccitelli | Friday, May 1, 2020
Theatre sign

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.

Leaf, Berthoud Pass Summit, August 21, 2017.

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.

Kit Carson Electric announces solar and storage that will put the cooperative at 100% renewables during sunny days by 2021. The New Mexico cooperative will soon go to work on securing wind power. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Hill (Alexandra Kelley):

The scientific community says that Moore’s newest film uses outdated facts to undermine renewable energy.

The film, titled “Planet of the Humans,” was released on April 21, ahead of Earth Day, and argues that the green movement is hypocritical in its environmentally friendly advocacy.

The film describes itself as “a wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids.” Instead, the film’s producers say that economic concerns and population growth need to be addressed to effectively curb climate change.

Despite the premise, the film has been criticized by advocacy and scientific organizations for offering dated depictions of the technology companies aim to use to combat climate change.

Yale Climate Connections explained that the film, which follows environmental activist, journalist, and director Jeff Gibbs, draws false conclusions to portray clean energy sources in a negative light. Among the film’s arguments, it asserts that solar panels use more fossil fuels than they offset, electric cars are charged through coal-burning energy, as well as drawing issues with other renewables.

Experts point out that while some solar technology creation emits fossil fuels and that some electric cars run on coal-burning energy, the carbon offset is still comparably less than fossil fuel sources. So while renewable technology does have a carbon footprint, it is smaller than that of nonrenewable energy, making it more environmentally friendly.

Scientists have been quick to recognize this caveat and speak up.

Reported by The Guardian and Mother Jones, climate scientist and Pennsylvania State University Professor Michael Mann signed a letter authored by fellow documentary filmmaker Josh Fox demanding the film be retracted by Moore and Gibbs.

Natural gas flares near a community in Colorado. Colorado health officials and some legislators agree that better monitoring is necessary. Photo credit the Environmental Defense Fund.

From Vox (Leah C. Stokes):

What’s more, [the film] has nothing to say about fossil fuel corporations, who have pushed climate denial and blocked progress on climate policy for decades. Given the film’s loose relationship to facts, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a documentary.

There are real tradeoffs in the clean energy transition. As a scholar, I’ve done my fair share of research and writing on those exact issues over the past decade. Renewables have downsides. As do biomass, nuclear, hydropower, batteries, and transmission. There is no perfect solution to our energy challenges.

But this film does not grapple with these thorny questions; it peddles falsehoods. Films for Action, an online library of free progressive films, agrees with me. It briefly pulled the movie from its site, after documentary filmmaker Josh Fox wrote an open letter, co-signed by climate scientists and energy experts.

“We are disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation — so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site,” Films for Action’s April 25 statement reads. “Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to misinformation.”

Here, I will lay out the case for why this film should have stayed on the cutting room floor.

The film has several factual errors about clean energy

It’s not surprising that the film gets basic energy facts wrong and that information included is out of date: There are hardly any climate or energy experts featured.

Early in the film, Gibbs goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration. He concludes they are dirty because they probably run on coal.

Except it’s not true. Two years ago, electric vehicles already had lower emissions than new gas-powered cars across the country. This is because the US electricity system has been slowly getting cleaner over the past decade.

What made solar panels so cheap? Thank government policy.

The film’s wind and solar facts are also old. It quotes efficiency for solar PV from more than a decade ago. And it doesn’t mention the fact that solar costs have plummeted since then, and that we’ve learned how to get more wind and solar onto the grid. The film instead acts like this is impossible to do.

The largest share of the movie’s scorn goes to biomass — generally, burning wood — which supplied less than 2 percent of the US electricity mix last year. But the filmmakers obscure that fact, showing graphs that imply biomass is leading to forest destruction across the US.

A biased take on the environmental movement

There are critiques that can be made of environmental NGOs. But the way activists are portrayed in this film is inaccurate. One of the film’s main theses is that the climate movement is captured by corporations. As Gibbs puts it, environmentalists are “leading us off the cliff.”

The evidence for this assertion? The Union of Concerned Scientists’ support for electric vehicles. And Sierra Club’s promotion of solar. And the fact that 350.org has received funding from environmental foundations. I fail to see how any of these facts are problematic.

The most egregious attack is made against Bill McKibben, a dedicated and kind environmental leader. As he has said, he has never taken any money for his environmental activism with 350.org. Watching this film, you might mistake him for a robber baron.

McKibben wrote to the filmmakers, to clarify his views. They did not write back. As he put it: “That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith.”

[…]

Instead, the film denigrates the crucial work of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Led by Mary Anne Hitt, this program helped stop the construction of 200 coal plants, and successfully pushed for the retirement of 300 others.

Rather than recognizing the Sierra Club’s achievement, the filmmakers falsely attribute the growth in natural gas to Beyond Coal. Alas, environmental groups are not in charge of planning new power plants: if they were, we would have a lot less fossil electricity. Utilities propose power plants to regulators, who approve them. Over the past decade, electric utilities have proposed an enormous amount of new gas facilities, which groups like the Sierra Club have opposed…

Why is Michael Moore promoting misinformation on climate change?

Throughout, the filmmakers twist basic facts, misleading the public about who is responsible for the climate crisis. We are used to climate science misinformation campaigns from fossil fuel corporations. But from progressive filmmakers? That’s new.

It’s difficult to understand Michael Moore’s motivations for blaming clean energy and environmental groups instead of fossil fuel companies or electric utilities. His previous films— like Roger & Me, Sicko, and Bowling for Columbine —were centered on holding corporations accountable. More recently, he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders at the same rally as climate champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Sanders campaign centered on an ambitious 100 percent renewable energy goal.

Yet, the film Moore backed concludes that population control, not clean energy, is the answer. This is a highly questionable solution, which has more in common with anti-immigration hate groups than the progressive movement.

The fact is that wealthy people in the developed world have the largest environmental footprints — and they also have the lowest birthrates. When this message is promoted, it’s implying that poor, people of color should have fewer children.

Not to mention the fact that pushing population control is completely disrespectful of women’s reproductive autonomy. Notably, almost all the “experts” featured in the film are white men.

It is sad to think of the world we are leaving for children. Yet, if we embraced clean energy, then they would not have to grow up in a world tied to dirty fossil fuels…

We have already warmed the planet by more than 1°C, and we are running out of time to scale up clean energy. Planet of the Humans has sowed confusion at a time when we need clarity on the climate crisis.

My only hope is that this film will be buried, and few will watch it or remember it. Much like fossil fuels, it would be best left underground.

Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her new book, Short Circuiting Policy, examines electric utilities’ role in holding back progress on clean energy and climate policy.

2 thoughts on “Michael Moore’s…documentary peddles dangerous #climatedenial — Yale Climate Connections #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

  1. The real lesson of the film is that overpopulation is the cause of the destruction of the environment, plant, animal, ocean life, and climate stability. We are the cause. More than 9 billion and growing by over 100 million every year. (That’s about 300,000 new people every day, that will need a lifetime of resources to live) What the film fails to do is give a solution. The only humane solution is smaller families world wide, and even a world wide halt to births for a period of time followed by a limit of 3 children per family. And other minimum common sense requirements to have a child in the first place. The population is higher than the “experts” think. The CO2 is higher than the “experts” think. Everything is worse than the oh so smart experts say it is.

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