So I watched Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” yesterday, a film directed and produced by Jeff Gibbs (Moore was the executive producer). Lots of good and bad noise being made about the documentary, so I wanted to see it for myself to judge. Note that you can see it for free on Youtube.
My overall impression of the movie is a mixed bag, but mostly negative. However, to be fair, I’ll mention some of the good, as well as the bad in my brief (and necessarily non-comprehensive) notes on the movie, with the usual disclaimer that these are my own personal views, and I speak solely in my individual capacity.
(1) Certain parts of the movie were shot way earlier than 2020, and as a result of that, some of the information you hear in the movie is quite dated. For example, some of the casually communicated information on solar panels regarding life span (10 years) and efficiency (8%) seemed quite old. Solar-powered generation has made significant progress over the years.
(2) One of the central messages of the movie (although by no means the only message) can be succinctly summarized by this argument:
(A) Fossil fuels are bad (this is taken as a given)
(B) Fossil fuels are used in the life cycle production of solar and wind power generation (to make solar panels, to pour the concrete for wind turbine structures, and so on)
(C) Ergo, solar and wind power generation are bad
Both premises can strongly be challenged, and by extension, the conclusion isn’t tenable.
(A) Fossil fuels are not bad (personally, I like fossil fuels, especially oil and gas; I’m sure you’re surprised). Although no energy source is “cost-free”, and fossil fuels are certainly no exception, when balancing costs versus benefits, fossil fuels have been and continue to be one of the greatest boons to humanity, having lifted billions of people out of energy poverty over centuries, significantly improved their standard of living, and underpinned modern civilization as we know it. If you don’t like this fact, come at me bro.
So why does Gibbs think fossil fuels are bad? One primary reason (though not the only reason) clearly implied throughout the film, is because of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions (like CO2) and the link to climate change. I’ve documented my issues with certain parts of climate science for nearly 2 decades now, so I won’t rehash these again in this post. But if that’s your issue, you may want to consider fossil fuels coupled with technological solutions like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is unsurprisingly not discussed in the film, and which can potentially play an important role in solving the GHG emissions problem; see more on CCS here.
For power generation, renewables can be cheaper on a levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) basis than fossil-fuel generation with CCS (especially coal + CCS), depending on the quality of your solar or wind resource versus the price of fuel (coal or gas). In fact, in many locales with (historically) expensive fossil fuels and very good quality wind or solar, un-subsidized renewables are cheaper than fossil-fuel power generation even without CCS. However, renewables are intermittent, and emerging technologies like Combined Cycle Natural Gas + CCS could possibly serve as a complement to renewables to provide the grid with reliable non-intermittent power (and could be cheaper than other alternatives like batteries, depending on gas price, although battery costs are coming down).
Perhaps more importantly, on the non-power generation side, CCS can potentially play a major role in providing carbon-neutral solutions like blue hydrogen (in its molecular form or via various hydrogen-carrier molecules), which is hydrogen made from fossil fuels like natural gas, and with its carbon emissions captured and sequestered via CCS technology. Blue hydrogen can be used as a carbon-free fuel for process heat (for e.g.) in major industrial processes that would be extremely expensive to electrify, such as processes in refineries, chemical plants, fertilizer plants and so on, and for which other alternatively-made carbon-free fuels are currently not competitive (although it will be interesting to monitor the competitiveness of processes such as electrolysis, which can make hydrogen from electricity and water; when the electricity is generated purely from renewable power, we call this green hydrogen).
(B) It is true that fossil fuels are currently used in the renewable manufacturing life-cycle. But two points need to be made here.
- If the issue is GHG emissions, then you would think that Gibbs would be heartened to know that the amount of GHG emissions produced in the manufacturing of renewables (like solar or wind) is much less than the amount of GHGs emitted over the life cycle of unabated fossil fuel generation (although fossil fuel generation + advanced CCS would leave you with similar amounts of GHG emissions as renewables). In fact, the amount of GHG emissions in the renewables manufacturing process is quite low. The notion of relative quantity of emissions, which is crucial in any comparative discussion between technologies, is never even broached in the film.
- Furthermore, if Gibbs insists on zero GHG emissions throughout the entire renewables manufacturing process, then CCS can always be used in ways described in section A above.
(C) As such, the conclusion that solar and wind “are bad” isn’t tenable if we’re focused on GHG emissions.
(3) At one point in the movie, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) comes up briefly on the screen with huge letters reminding you that SF6 has a global warming potential of 23,000 times that of CO2 and that it’s used in renewable power generation equipment like wind turbines. That is true, but again, Gibbs fails to discuss relative quantities of emissions. The amount of SF6 emissions (mostly via leaks from electrical equipment such as switchgear) in the world is small, and the concentration of SF6 in the atmosphere is in the order of parts per trillion. So the overall warming effect of SF6, per consensus climate science, is relatively small compared to CO2 despite its significantly larger global warming potential because of massive differences in relative emissions. See more here on SF6.
(4) In the film, there’s a small segment about electric cars not being as “green” as they’re marketed to be, because the electricity they pull from the grid isn’t completely GHG-free (there’s a discussion of how 95% of electricity in Lansing, MI, comes from coal). That was certainly true back when that clip was recorded (in 2010?), and it’s still true today (although to a lesser extent), but as solar and wind generation costs continue to drop, they will continue to be added to grids around the world, and thus, these grids will slowly but surely “green” up over time. By extension then, electric cars will become “greener” over time.
(5) There were segments interspersed throughout the movie on the sustainability of mining the raw materials needed to make renewable power generation (rare Earth metals, quartz etc), and the disposal of end-of-life solar panels, wind-turbines and so on. I have to admit I don’t know enough about this topic to comment intelligently at this point, but it is something I’ll have to look into.
(6) A part of the movie that I agreed with is the last part of the film focused on biomass. I strongly agree that large-scale biomass power generation, where large parts of forests are cut down to be burned in large power plants, is a disaster and should be avoided. There is a lot more to talk about when it comes to biomass in general (and not just in power generation; hello, corn ethanol), but some of it can be done “sustainably” under certain restricted circumstances. I’ll leave this for another day given the length of this post already. However, I will say that the very last few minutes of the movie stayed with me, where scenes of orangutans are shown in trees being cut down, forcing them down to the ground as they lose their homes in the tree-tops. They are then shown staring into the cameras, as they take their last dying breaths. These scenes were clearly meant to pull on heart-strings, and tie deforestation with biomass use in energy, and they were quite effective.
(7) A part that I truly enjoyed was the grilling of “green” billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Jeremy Grantham and multi-hundred millionaires like Al Gore. Always happy to see hypocritical virtue-signaling billionaires who want to “Save The Planet” be knocked down a pedestal or two. Kudos to that (on a tangential but related note, please read this piece by Roger Pielke Jr on the impact of “green” billionaires like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer regarding the state of climate science).
(8) In a similar vein, Gibbs skewers “green” organizations like the Sierra Club and Bill McKibben’s 350.org (with McKibben himself being shown in a less than flattering light) by highlighting some of their hypocrisy. There were a litany of points raised in this segment, and I won’t go over all of them, other than to highlight the following and important point. This film is really directed at a segment of the environmental movement, with a message that can be roughly summarized as follows: renewable energy (via green capitalism) is not going to solve the environmental problems of modern industrial society. The problem is industrial society itself, and our massive consumption, which leads to these environmental problems. The only solution is to control human overpopulation in order to live sustainably.
There is a clear Neo-Malthusian message permeating throughout the film, and I couldn’t help but be somewhat exasperated every time one of the interviewees would communicate it in somber tones. I really don’t have the time or energy to go over why these types of arguments have an almost perfect record of failure, so hopefully you’ll give me a pass.
Finally, I’d like to highlight one last point. The reception of the movie by “mainstream” environmental organizations has been swift and brutal. Michael Moore is taking a shellacking across large parts of the environmental media space. Criticism is of course warranted, but some, like Josh Fox and many others, have tried really hard to censure the movie. People like Josh Fox, who put out one of the most misleading and propaganda-filled energy-focused movies I’ve ever seen (GasLand), have no leg to stand on. More importantly, people like Josh Fox, who are authoritarians at heart and who refuse to entertain speech that runs afoul of their favorite talking points, need to appreciate that the only way to counter bad speech and ideas (like most of Moore’s film), is to come up with better speech and ideas, and not to deny people the right to express themselves. So on that parting note, please don’t be like Josh Fox.