Planet of the Humans: Could the Michael Moore documentary hurt the energy transition?

The documentary that highlights the flaws of renewable technology has been hammered by climate activists for being misleading, but some say it is a timely wakeup call to the hypocrisies of the green movement. What impact could the documentary have on the shift to clean energy?

A biomass plant in the United States. Image: Planet of the Humans
A biomass plant in the United States. Environmentalist say the only sound criticism of renewables in the Planet of the Humans film is of biomass production. Image: Planet of the Humans

Planet of the Humans, a documentary produced by filmmaker Michael Moore that takes an axe to the environmental movement, has been pilloried by climate activists who say the film is misleading and uses out-of-date information to attack the credibility of renewable energy.

Some campaigners have called for the film to be removed from the internet for using dated, disputed arguments made by fossil fuels industry supporters, while others have lamented the timing of the film, as renewable energy investments are called into question amid the coronavirus-induced economic slump.

The film, production of which began in 2010, includes claims that electric vehicles are as polluting as petrol-powered cars, solar panels have a lifespan of just 10 years (most modern photovoltaic panels last for at least 25 years), Tesla’s factories are connected to the grid so cannot use 100 per cent renewable energy, and Germany is still almost entirely dependent on coal for energy. These claims have been heavily criticised.

Other questions the film raises about renewables have drawn more sympathy from environmentalists, such as the use of wood chips as an alternative to coal in the fast-growing biomass industry. 

Humankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature, but of itself.

Rachel Carson, author, Silent Spring

Could the documentary have any impact in Asia Pacific, where the use of renewable energy has been relatively slow to take off? Eco-Business asked experts in energy, environmental activism and business how Planet of the Humans could affect the energy transition.

Jeffrey Char, CEO, SOGO Energy

The fact that the movie exists is disappointing. It gives climate deniers soundbites to make false arguments. But I’m not for censuring it. It’s better to have a constructive debate. The facts presented in the film have changed. Renewables, especially solar and wind, are now extremely price competitive. Electric vehicles are not as polluting as petrol cars, because they are fueled by a dirty grid—that’s a myopic view made in the film. In an absolute sense, maybe. But in a practical, realistic sense, its wrong. EVs are more efficient and result in lower emissions as utilities add more renewables to the fuel mix. I hope that enough publications put out stronger arguments about renewables that are up to date and accurate to counter the misleading information in the film.

Assaad Razzouk, CEO, Sindicatum 

This so-called “documentary” is more of a fantasy film, and I don’t think it will have much impact. The attack on wood biomass is fair enough—wood biomass is a huge problem and needs to stop. But even that critique is about five years out of date. Current renewable energy numbers speak for themselves. As noted by Kingsmill Bond in his recent piece, demand growth for oil, gas and coal had already slowed, pre-Covid-19, to 1 per cent a year, and in nearly 40 per cent of the world, fossil demand was already falling.

So during the recovery, even more of the energy demand growth (most of which is occurring in Asia) will be by renewable energy. In addition, citizens will be more vocal about refusing to be asphyxiated [by pollution from fossil fuel burning], having been incredibly sensitised to asphyxiation by the coronavirus, and so the push-back against fossil fuels will increase, not decrease.

Martin Lim, CEO, Electrify 

Michael Moore is a shock artist. He relies on a “grassroots” impression to make a point, and ambushes people to give the impression of a dark underbelly. But there are some valid points in the film. Soon, there will be millions of solar panels and batteries that have reached end-of-life. What do we do with it all? We can’t recycle it. So solar is not green in that sense. But it’s unfair to focus on a narrow slice of time and declare that renewables are wrong. The energy transition will take decades. It won’t be done overnight.

But energy is not something that people really think about, and in Southeast Asia most people don’t care where it comes from, as long as it’s cheap. But then there are households in Singapore that run up S$500 electricity bills because they leave the aircon on constantly. The film makes that point that we need to curb energy consumption. But that’s hard, particularly in a fast-growing region. And people will worry even less about their energy consumption if they can say they’ve got solar fields in their country.

Julien Vincent, executive director, Market Forces 

The film won’t change much politically. These days, politicians trying to stand in the way of decarbonising the economy and energy system seem to be doing so because of ideological reasons, so if they weren’t using this film as their fodder they’ll have some other material from yesteryear to fall back on.

Could the film have an impact in Australia [where Vincent is based]? Anyone trying to convince people here that renewables don’t work is going to have to argue with millions of people’s daily experience, which is getting a large amount of their power from rooftop solar, and the Australian Energy Market Operator planning for a grid that will be dominated by renewables in the coming decade.

Hans van Mameren, co-founder, Energy Renewed

Will this film hamper the energy transition? Probably not in Asia, as the film is US-centric, and there are too many reasons why we need this transition. I do not agree with the attacks on Michael Moore. Both sides, left and right, are using the film to further their own arguments, and are missing the main point.

Anyone trying to convince people in Australia that renewables don’t work is going to have to argue with millions of people’s daily experience [with rooftop solar].

Julien Vincent, executive director, Market Forces

Yes, the data is old (the film cites solar panel efficiency being 8 per cent - it is three times that now). But the film rightly questions whether old-style capitalism is the right vehicle to drive the energy transition, and points out that large corporates and powerful people like Al Gore, Richard Branson and the Koch Brothers have co-opted the green movement. The pursuit of endless economic growth is the problem, and renewable energy alone cannot provide for a future population of 10 billion people who all want appliances, cars, and air-conditioning. As Rachel Carson, author of conservationist book Silent Spring, said: “Humankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery – not of nature, but of itself.”

Edgare Kerkwijk, managing director, Asia Green Capital

Watching this movie, it would seem as if humanity has not done anything about climate change. The global energy system was established a century ago, and the energy transition has been taking place over the past 20 years. Much has been achieved. Yes, some technologies are inefficient, and some do environmental harm, like biomass. But it takes time for the right technologies to replace inefficient ones.

The film launches at a time when Covid-19 is already threatening the renewable energy sector. Many people are calling for economic stimulus packages to be funnelled towards climate change. But this is unlikely. The immediate need for governments is to tackle issues such as high unemployment and poverty, so renewables development may take a back seat.

Responding to criticism

The film, which is available to watch for free for the first 30 days after its release on YouTube, has been watched more than 6.4 million times, at the time of publishing, since it was uploaded to mark Earth Day on 21 April.

In a question-and-answer session on YouTube on Tuesday, Michael Moore, director Jeff Gibbs and producer Ozzie Zehner defended the film, responding to criticism that it ignored improvements made in renewables technology. “It doesn’t matter if the efficiencies of solar have changed,” said Zehner. “The fundamental issue is that we’re seeing a breakdown of the natural world, and technology is being used to address it, shifting to another set of problems. We need to shift out of that story.”

Also on the Q&A was Clare Farrell, co-founder of the environmental action group Extinction Rebellion (XR). She said that while she hoped that Covid-19 pandemic would inspire people to live their lives differently, “the political reality is that governments are failing to take action to protect their citizens, while we’re about to see the biggest bail-outs [for large corporate polluters] we could ever imagine.”

She said that one way to curb the excessive consumption the film references is through citizens assemblies, which XR proposes as political tools to bring about climate and ecological justice. “It’s difficult to get elected if you’re going to stop people from shopping. Citizens’ assemblies have greater credibility. There are no vested interests or lobbies that influence decisions,” she said.

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