Planet of the Humans: a film review

Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore somehow make a climate change film without involving climate scientists.

Image: Planet of the Humans
Credit: Planet of the Humans

I’ll start off by saying that I’ve been a fan of a lot of Michael Moore’s work for a long time.

Updated 27 Apr 2020: Added items to the 'Additional resources' section, including a different documentary worth watching.

I saw Roger and Me in the theaters back in 1989, and I thought TV Nation was funny and insightful. He’s an agitator and polemicist, but on balance his progressive brand of journalism has been a great voice for many years. That’s why his latest project, Planet of the Humans, is so disappointing. Climate scientists have widely criticized it.

The film wasn’t written or directed by Moore - the credit goes to his longtime collaborator Jeff Gibbs - but Moore has made the rounds promoting the film, including an appearance with Stephen Colbert.

This isn’t going to be a film critique or go into the politics of the film, such as what hypocrisies may or may not exist with Al Gore’s or the Sierra Club’s financial dealings. I’m no film critic, and those are big, complicated topics outside of my expertise. I’ll stick with what I know about, which are the scientific inaccuracies in the film.

Two disclosures: One, I like solar panels (obviously) and make money if you go solar with a contractor that you connect with via this website. Two, I’ve donated money to The Sierra Club, which is heavily critiqued in this film. So, you know, caveat emptor.

What Planet of the Humans gets right

First of all, it should be said that the film does raise some important and valid issues. The environmental movement and green energy aren’t perfect. There are problems with environmentalism that are worth discussing and the film, in its ham-fisted way, does bring them up:

Greenwashing is a thing. Just because a person or organization has taken some steps to be environmentally-friendly, that’s not absolution or mean they’ve achieved sustainability. Sometimes they’re just greenwashing. In the film, a music festival claims to be environmentally friendly because they’re using a few solar panels. They mean to do well, but sustainability is a lot more complicated than just putting up a solar panel, and the film rightly points this out.

It’s important to follow the money. Questioning how organizations are financed, including environmental groups, is important because it may reveal conflicts of interest or hidden agendas. If a fossil fuel company is funding an enviromental campaign, are they doing it because they’re genuinely trying to change their business model? Or is it just an act of greenwashing? And does an environmental organization compromise its principles when accepting money from corporations?

Green energy alone isn’t going to save the planet. Serious climate researchers don’t believe that you can save the planet by only doing 1:1 substitutions, like trading in a gasoline car for an electric one. That’s not enough: we need to change how we live and how we build our economies. This can mean relatively easy fixes such as energy efficiency, or much more difficult ones, such as changing how we design our cities, use our land, and address economic injustices that lead to a few people with massive consumption while many more live on much less.

Life cycle analysis is important. The film, in its very unscientific treatment of a scientific topic, doesn’t use the terms embodied energy or life cycle analysis, but those are concepts it tries (but fails) to communicate. Biomass fuels in particular, such as corn ethanol and wood waste, deserve close analysis because they involve confounding factors such as land use changes that make calculating life cycle emissions very tricky.

What Planet of the Humans gets wrong

The main argument of this movie is that renewable energy not only isn’t better than fossil fuels, but is harmful because it’s the result of some kind of grand conspiracy between financial interests and big environmental groups to distract us from the real solution. At the end of the movie, Gibbs doesn’t exactly say that the solution is population control, but strongly implies it:

"It's not one thing, but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible."

This also happens to be the major plot point of Avengers Infinity War, which was a much more entertaining movie that you should see. His Thanos-approved solution to environmental catastrophe takes things to a level he wouldn’t need to if he actually read some climate research or even just a few Wikipedia articles. It’s clear he didn’t, instead making some pretty marginal academics the focus of his story.

It’s a strawman argument. Climate researchers and the environmental groups he trashes aren’t saying that green energy is the only thing we need to do. It’s widely acknowledged that the climate solution will need to be an all-of-the-above approach. Yes, that includes technical solutions like green energy and possibly even carbon sequestration, but also big changes to how we live.

Sigh. Okay, let’s pick apart some of the bad arguments and logical fallacies in this film:

Solar panels and wind turbines are made with… stuff! Making stuff means mining and burning coal! Therefore, wind turbines and solar panels are no better than burning coal!

Green energy technology like solar panels, wind turbines, biomass plants, and hydroelectric dams are made with raw materials that need to be mined, transported, and manufactured. Some parts of those supply chains can be really dirty. While all that is true, it’s not an enlightening insight by itself.

The question to really ask is: how much energy is consumed and pollution released when you manufacture the thing that generates the fuel or electricity that you want? To generate electricity from coal, you mine coal, transport it, build a coal-fired power plant (and mine the materials to make that), and build the transmission lines that connect to your house.

To make solar electricity, you first need to mine for things like silicon, aluminium, iron, copper. Those raw materials are fabricated into silicon cells, and that can involve some hazardous materials like nitrogen trifluoride. Finally, those panels must be installed and connected to an existing electric grid.

If you want to fully understand the impacts of this, you can do a life cycle analysis, which is calculating all of the pollution, energy, and land use impacts needed to get the point where you have a working solar panel or coal-fired power plant. It’s complicated math, which is why Gibbs’s hand-wavey approach of saying that renewables and fossil fuels are basically the same is so frustrating.

What does the life cycle analysis say for fossil fuels versus wind and solar power? It’s not even close: generating one unit of energy from these renewables is much, much cleaner than from fossil fuels. Here’s a table from the IPCC report AR5 Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change:

Figure 7.6 - Comparative lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from electricity supplied by commercially available technologies (courtesy: IPCC)
Figure 7.6 - Comparative lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from electricity supplied by commercially available technologies (courtesy: IPCC)

(Click on the image to open a PDF version in a new window.)

How to read this graph: the bars show the total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for any energy source. Orange segments are direct emissions, which green energy sources don’t have, because they don’t involve burning fuel. The blue segment of each bar represents how dirty half those fuel sources, in practice, actually are. The white bar extends out to represent the worst implementation of each technology in the real world.

For example, most hydropower is very clean (represented by the blue segment near the zero line). However, in some cases, hydropower can be very dirty because the flooding of tropical lands results in lots of methane being generated via anerobic decomposition. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

Solar? It’s very clean. Rooftop solar (which this website is all about!) is better than even the most advanced combined cycle natural gas-fired power plants.

Biofuels? Relatively dirty as far as green energy goes, especially forest wood, which the film rightly points out. But it’s also possible for biofuels to have negative emissions by helping to trap more carbon than they release.

So as you can see, the story is much more complicated than the simplistic arguments the film make. There’s no way to credibly critique this analysis unless you’ve gone through the math yourself, which Gibbs clearly has not done.

If you want to know more, I wrote an article about the environment footprint of solar panels. It goes into a little more depth and has some additional scientific resources to read.

Renewable energy sources haven’t displaced fossil fuel sources! They’ve accomplished nothing!

To argue about the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of the green energy movement, the film makes the weird observation that Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign coincided with the fracking boom in the United States, and concludes that the two are somehow connected. This is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. To be clear, the fracking boom was aided by new technology and low interest rates, which sustained the high capital investment that the companies needed to maintain the high cost of drilling. (Fracked wells deplete more rapidly than conventional oil wells, so much more drilling is required.) The fact that the fracking boom happened is not a failure of green energy. (Side note: the current crash in oil prices is seriously hurting oil companies not just because of the low price for their product, but because their large debt burden makes their financial situation even more precarious.)

The film is just flat-out wrong about all of this. When a utility company decides they need a new generating plant, they put out the requirements for their project, and companies bid for the contract. Lately, wind and solar projects are outbidding coal and even natural gas on price, even without subsidies in some cases. When a green energy project wins a bid, it literally means that a fossil fuel plant didn’t get built. That’s why the film’s argument that renewables aren’t displacing coal and gas just doesn’t make any sense at all.

There’s plenty of news sources you can go to read about this, and not just environmental publications which might be unfairly be accused of bias. Here’s one from Bloomberg, for example.

The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. You need fossil fuels to back them up. Green energy is pointless!

The electric grid is the largest machine in the world. It’s complicated. It’s true that one of the biggest challenges of renewable energy is figuring out how to incorporate it into the grid when those sources can be unpredictable.

This is beyond my expertise to explain in-depth, but I have written an article about grid interconnection for home solar.

When you hear about the smart grid, that’s a big part of the solution to integrate a high percentage of intermittent electricity into the grid. We know what the solutions are: demand management, energy efficiency, pricing models that encourage users to shift their electricity use, higher capacity transmission lines, better coordination between electricity markets, and energy storage are some of the many ways we can tackle this problem. It’s hard, but not intractable by any stretch. It’s already happening in many places.

And yes, big batteries are part of the solution. It’s a solution that seems impossible because of the scale involved, but one that’s already been successful. There’s a massive Tesla grid-scale battery in Australia that’s been so successful that they recently did a 50% expansion.

Just like with turbines and solar panels, you do need “stuff” to build a battery. Some of that stuff, like cobalt, is mined and has big social and environmental impacts. Even so, when you do a life cycle accounting of lithium batteries, they come out way ahead of fossil fuel alternatives. Not only that, the technology keeps getting better. Tesla, in particular, is working on cobalt-free batteries and recently patented technology that will allow their vehicle batteries to last a million miles.

Solar panels are only 8% efficient!

At one point in the movie, Gibbs visits a solar panel array in Lansing, Michigan where a guy from the Lansing Board of Water & Light explains that the solar panels are flexible and have an efficiency rating of 8%.

I have no idea where Lansing got those panels from, but I hope they kept the receipts and can get their money back. First of all, the vast majority of solar panels that are deployed are crystalline silicon - not thin-film - and have an efficiency anywhere between 16 and 22%. Crystalline silicon panels (which don’t have toxic heavy metals like cadmium) have around 95% market share according to the Fraunhofer Institute.

Thin-film panels, the kind in the Lansing array, are only 5% of the market. Gibbs must have gone out of his way to find a thin-film solar array because they are definitely not mainstream.

But even then, while thin-film cells generally do have lower efficiency, it shouldn’t be as low as 8%. First Solar, an Arizona company that is one of the few that makes thin-film panels, claims 17% efficiency. I have no idea where Lansing could have gotten 8% efficient panels. Most likely, the guy in the film just misspoke.

Installing wind turbines on mountains is basically the same as mountain top removal mining!

The film argues that when wind turbines are installed on a mountain ridge, the mountain top is removed, just the same as if you had mined the mountain. That’s wrong.

Here’s the least flattering image of turbines that I could find:

North East Windmills
(North East Windmills)

This was taken shortly after the turbines were installed, so the soil disturbance is evident. Access roads do need to be cut, and trees need to be removed. Renewable energy isn’t zero impact.

Here’s what mountain top removal looks like:

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
(Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

These impacts are not the same. The soil isn’t just disturbed with this kind of mining. It’s gone. To call turbines and mining equivalent is lazy and disingenous.

So much more about this film is wrong

I watched this film, and honestly it was a little heartbreaking. With the kind of resources Michael Moore has, it could have been great. Instead, he ended up parroting many falsehoods that the renewable energy and environmental movements have been trying to dispell for decades.

No, green energy alone isn’t going to avert climate change. Few climate scientists would argue that. Even this website, which makes money if you use our services to help you go solar, tells you not to go solar if you haven’t taken care of energy efficiency first. Fixing the Earth’s climate is perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has faced. Of course, it is complicated. Of course it will be difficult.

I’m not a climate scientist, and neither are Jeff Gibbs or Michael Moore. If you really want to get educated about climate change, don’t watch this film, but follow the work of thousands of scientists around the globe. Or just take a break and watch the last two Avengers movies so you can understand the Thanos reference.

What’s the worst thing about this movie?

I said at the beginning of this piece that I wasn’t going to do film criticism, but after thinking about the movie for a few hours today I realized that the thing I hate the most about it isn’t that it gets the science wrong, egregious as that is.

No, the worst part of this movie is that Gibbs thinks he’s made some kind of big revelation - that he’s asking Big Questions nobody has asked before.

I started this website to help educate people about solar energy. There’s always a few questions that people ask about solar, like: how do solar panels get made? Is that process dirty? And if you’re talking about electric vehicles, of course they ask: well, doesn’t electricity come from coal?

Everybody asks these questions. They’re obvious questions, but good and important ones that deserve simple and clear answers that don’t bog people down into technical esoterica.

It takes a whole lot of arrogance on the part of Gibbs to think he’s the only person who’s asked this stuff, and then to use a platform as big as Michael Moore’s to foist his middle school-level thinking onto the world. It would have taken almost no work for Gibbs to realize he didn’t need to make this movie. The IPCC distilled their recommendations into just one page. Here it is (pdf).

Additional resources

Because one of the core arguments in the film is that renewable energy’s purported financial ties compromises its ethics and should therefore disqualify wind and solar from having a larger role in society, I thought that I should link to a documentary that makes a similar argument against fossil fuels.

Specifically, the film makes the case that the War in Iraq was at least partly motivated by the oil-related financial interests of the Bush family - companies such as Harken Energy, Spectrum 7, Arbusto Drilling, and Halliburton, some of which had close ties to Saudi Arabia. The Center for Public Integrity has a nice summary of this.

The documentary is called Fahrenheit 9/11. It was directed by Michael Moore and is available for streaming online.

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