By now many of you have probably seen or at least heard of Michael Moore’s newest documentary, “Planet of the Humans.” It was released via YouTube on April 21st and has since been viewed almost 7 million times. In the film, Moore takes on climate change and the renewables industry, but not in the way you might expect. He accurately frames the impending climate crisis but proceeds to vilify renewable energy and claim that the only solution is population reduction. Planet of the Humans is valuable in that it forces us to have difficult conversations and provokes discussion, but unfortunately, it is riddled with misinformation about renewables and the energy landscape. In order to combat the spread of half-truths and dispel any concerns surrounding the movie, Powered by Facts has assembled a list of some of the most misleading aspects of the film below.
1. “Clean” Energy
POTH erroneously lumps renewable energy solutions with dated energy production methods that may be cleaner than fossil fuels but are nonetheless not what many in the industry classify as renewables. These include biomass, biofuels, and natural gas. While many concede that some of these bridge resources might be necessary as we transition to renewables, there is a severe lack of nuance in this discussion. For instance, the film focuses on issues surrounding biomass. It is true biomass is not an ideal source of clean energy, but POTH fails to mention how broad the term “biomass” really is. For example, capturing gas emitted from landfills, cleanly burning solid waste, and anaerobic digestion of microalgae are all technically biomass and could be important technologies moving forward. Additionally, the film would have viewers believe that biomass is exclusively the practice of clear-cutting and burning forests, rather than the selective use of decaying timber. Biomass has its issues, but the film should not make unnuanced assertions about a large swath of technologies, some of which are very helpful in carbon reduction.
2. Cherry-picked Examples
The film discussed the environmental destruction caused by the construction of large-scale solar and wind projects. While it is true that some projects have been poorly situated, most solar and wind projects are now in open spaces, recycled lands (brownfields), or offshore. Further, this discounts the continued growth of distributed solar, which is minimally invasive and located on existing infrastructure like roofs, parking structures, and other unused spaces.
3. Electric Vehicles
EVs are highlighted in the film as an example of greenwashing. It is no secret that the efficacy of electric vehicles is dependent on the cleanliness of the grid from which they draw their power. However, POTH claims that this negates the need for EVs altogether. However, the average EV gets 88 mpg across the country. Even in a coal-heavy state like Ohio, EVs have an average of 56 mpg, whereas in California the average equivalent is 122 mpg. Like many of the points in this film, it essentially argues that because EVs are not perfect, they are not a worthwhile venture. However, EVs are already a cleaner option than traditional vehicles and will continue to improve as fossil fuels continually phase out. Additionally, electric vehicles have a huge impact on other pollutants that are harmful to humans, like volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides. Large-scale implementation of EVs has led to air quality improvements in states like California.
4. Short-sighted Analysis
The film ignores the fact that renewable energy technologies have gotten much more efficient and will continue to do so at an increasing rate. The film incorrectly claims that solar panels only last 10 years before needing to be decommissioned, but solar panels now operate (conservatively) for an average of 30 years. POTH also compared solar and energy storage to fossil fuels because there is mining involved in both. Fossil fuels, however, need to continually be mined and have an output tied directly to how much is taken from the earth. Solar power and battery storage require a finite amount of raw materials that can be recycled and used to generate power for decades. Further, the energy “payback” time for older PV technologies is only four years, meaning it will take four years of the average 30 years of operation to repay the energy used to produce the panels. Newer technologies have a payback time of only a year and will likely continue to improve.
5. Out of Date Statistics
The film egregiously states that solar panels have an efficiency rating of only 8%. A large majority of solar panels on the market now have efficiency ratings of between 16 and 22%. The documentary began filming almost a decade ago. Technology has improved drastically over the past decade and costs are rapidly declining. Citing statistics from ten years ago dangerously misrepresents the renewables industry and its viability.
Planet of the Humans is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it is riddled with misinformation and out-of-date statistics. Second, it claims renewable energy is not a worthwhile endeavor simply because it is not perfect. Renewable energy policy and technology have greatly improved in the last two decades and will continue to do so with the right investments and leadership. Third, it claims that the only solution to climate change is through population reduction. Humans are threatening the climate and this is an important discussion, however, it ignores a reality of climate change that most emissions are created by developed countries, which already have declining populations. By contrast, most of the increasing population density around the world is occurring in the developing world. POTH’s viewpoint is essentially that the United States and other developed nations should not continue to invest in renewables in order to curb emissions. This strategy condemns the developing world to suffer the consequences of our actions. This is not a tenable way forward.