The Michael Moore-produced film “Planet of the Humans,” released on Earth Day, takes aim at what Moore claims are the “false promises” of renewable energy. The movie was painful to watch because of its faulty, outdated premises and half-baked thinking. It sought to disparage the entire solar and renewable energy industry with images of, for example, generators powering solar energy festivals in rainy Vermont. (oh! The irony).
To me, it showed instead why we need elected officials who understand science and a federal government that will invest in science to find solutions that protect public health and safety.
Director and ‘star’ Jeff Gibbs has been working through these issues since 2012 - and not only has a lot changed since then, it was supposed to change. Take, for example, the scene in which GM releases the Chevy Volt, 2011.
In the film, Gibbs points out that the car plugs into a coal-powered grid, so how can this be an improvement for the environment? Yes, in 2011, the grid was powered by coal. But in 2011, the job was not finished! GM’s role was to make a car (and now more than 45 different EV models are available in the US at different price points).
The government’s job is to incentivize renewables, the consumer’s job is to buy and drive the car, an entrepreneur, to create the charging infrastructure. Of course the EV plugs into the power grid coal powered grid - because you can't change an entire system at once. But now, 9 years later, different parts of the system are catching up. As the grid shifts, those EVs will be ready to reap the benefits.
And in the meantime, kids don’t get asthma from electric cars.
The next 7 points are my critiques of the logic in this film, followed by links to other forms of critique.
1. Moore’s Law and Technology
Not Michael Moore, help us, but Gordon Moore who observed that every two years technology improves enough to double the number of transistors on an integrated circuit. We’re no longer talking transistors - but the speed of technology development has accelerated, across all technologies, continuing to double every period. The problems with the batteries in the film may be solved with Sulfur batteries to get us better storage with fewer Earth metals. (Read “Thank you For Being Late,” by Thomas Friedman). And if the government invests in the R&D - we can move even faster !
Solar-panel efficiency has improved, as Moore’s law would have predicted, and costs have come down. In fact, by the end of 2019, the cheapest kilowatt hour to install next across the US was solar, at 4 cents.
2. Science Matters
This movie is why we need elected officials who understand science. This is why we need a federal government that will invest, invest, invest in solutions and science to find solutions.
No one thing can satisfy 100% of needs. With population where it is, we need a diverse approach to solve every problem.
The strongest ecosystems, the strongest financial portfolios - heck, the strongest working teams are diverse. Same with energy. Our energy future will include growing share of solar, geothermal, hydro, wind, and tidal. The use of natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy will shrink. AND it will include a tremendous amount - a growing share - of energy consumption As science and technology advance, the share of the different energy sources will change. Some decades will bring more investment in one form, some another. With a diverse energy portfolio, we will have wind for cool nights, solar for sunny days, good batteries and a smart grid for the times that fall “in between.” We will have distributed, democratic, energy generation and EV cars plugged into the smart grid to store and balance excess energy.
To get to the diverse balance, we will be transitioning continuously until we achieve zero-carbon. Biofuels are terrible, but if sighted in a spot with lots of excess biomass, they can work - for a time, in the transition. We are in the middle of a continuum. Not everything works everywhere on the planet. Biofuels are clearly misused, and Gibbs pointed that out. The forest destruction is heart wrenching. He got that right. And anyone cutting a forest down to burn because they sighted a biofuel plant without the fuel is an idiot. Anyone cutting a forest down to put up solar panels is also an idiot, because they didn’t see the full extent of the damage they are inflicting on the planet.
“Beyond Coal” (also a book, Climate of Hope, Bloomberg, Pope) is moving us along the transition. Closing coal plants across the country is part - only part - of what needs to be done.
6. It’s Us
Gibbs ends by declaring “it’s us.” Okay. It may be us. It’s all us. But we alone can’t solve it without the policy and systems in place to guide us. Messaging on overconsumption has played out over 25 years. And consumption is still growing. This is where policy (hopefully federal) comes into play. We can all turn out our lights - of course. Al Gore told us in 2006. But unless fossil subsidies are stopped, and the entire grid is converted, and the transition off fossil fuel (including natural gas and bio) is complete, then we will not have arrived where we need to arrive. Government is supposed to be the dam that stops us from breaking everything. But sadly, the government, and I agree, sadly even Obama, did not do the job. No comment needed on current administration.
7. Energy, It’s not just energy
Project Drawdown is the most comprehensive and scientifically based project to figure out how to stop climate change. Solving the climate crisis is not just about energy. The Drawdown team quantified the CO2 emissions of all different activities across the globe. They expected the top ideas to be the things that the environmental movement was preaching: renewables!
But it turns out that it’s food - reducing food waste saves ~ 87 Gigaton CO2 equivalent reduced 2020-2050; plant rich diets saves ~ 65 Gigaton CO2 equivalent reduced 2020-2050.. It’s people -health and education saves ~ 85 Gigaton CO2 equivalent reduced 2020-2050. It’s managing refrigerants! (57 Gigaton CO2e). The list goes on and includes renewable energy in its various forms (wind more important than solar). We need to do all those things. And if we accomplish all those things we may hit the moment of drawdown when we can witness at the end of the year one ppm - part per million - drawdown in the carbon measured in the atmosphere. Then we’ll know we are in the right direction. This movie does not help us get there.
And the people Gibbs and Moore slam in the movie are not claiming to be saints or saviors, but they are creating -or have created - the movement. This movement has gotten us as far as we've come. We don’t have anything better than that right now, and Gibbs certainly didn’t present anything better.
Bill McKibben's latest book is called “Falter.” I’m in the middle of it. Premise: questioning whether the human game has played itself out…
To dig further into the factual inaccuracies, see also:
“The truth is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to make his critique in a helpful way.” https://theenergymix.com/2020/04/26/blistering-critiques-for-moores-planet-of-the-humans-short-on-facts-arbitrary-in-style/