What Michael Moore got wrong, an introduction.
On April 21st, American filmmaker Michael Moore released Planet of the Humans. Moore claims the film, introduced on the eve of Earth Day 2020, “dares to say what no one else will.” Due to its accessibility on Youtube, free of cost, it has spread like wildfire, having been viewed 7.5 million times at time of writing. The film sets out to debunk the “hidden secrets” of the green energy industry, and “expose” environmentalist leaders for their hidden intentions of amassing wealth.
At first glance, the film may appear revolutionary, but with careful observation, you realize Planet of the Humans is riddled with misconceptions. It attempts to divide the environmentalist community, claiming that the fight against climate change is “too little, too late.” Not only is this statement upsetting and misleading, it could also potentially set back the climate movement by decades and stall the transition to a more sustainable future.
This article addresses some of the science and technology based claims, leaving the conversation about Al Gore or Bill McKibben out. The environmentalism movement is more than a collection of individuals, and even if a fraction of the claims about them be true (they’re not), it would not matter.
To assess the validity of the claims made in this film, you must acknowledge its use of deceit. A lot of the content is outdated, which makes it invalid for serious conversation. While the majority of the interviews used in the film are suspiciously not dated at all, the information and videos that can be traced were mostly gathered over a decade ago.
The most striking example is when Jeff Gibbs, the director of the film, tours Cedar Street Solar Array, a small solar farm in Lansing, Michigan. Upon asking how many homes the solar farm could power, an official states about 10.
In the film the official states that the efficiency, (how much solar energy is converted into electricity,) of the Cedar Street Solar Array panels is just below 8%, unsurprising given that its technology is from 20081. While this efficiency rate may have been the limit back then, data shows that solar energy has since become significantly advanced. Today, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs states that single-crystal cells, the “most common and widely available photovoltaic cell” (a photovoltaic cell is the most basic subunit of a solar panel), have an experimental efficiency of 25% and a field efficiency of 16%2.
Many of the clips used were recorded in the era of less affordable and accessible green energy. Today, solar and wind have emerged as the cheapest sources of energy for two-thirds of the world’s population according to Bloomberg media3. In 2009, the cost of solar panel installation was approximately $8.50 per watt. By 2019, this had dropped 65% to just $2.96 per watt, representing years of solar rising in efficiency and declining in price. This outdated video is misleading. What may have been true of renewable energy over a decade ago, is false now4.
A significant portion of Planet of The Humans attacks solar and wind renewable energy. According to the film’s producer, Ozzie Zehner, humans would be better off burning fossil fuels, than using these renewables, because of the fossil fuels used in the building of solar panels and wind turbines. His argument is not backed by research.
The film blatantly ignores the concept of carbon debt, the difference between the carbon footprint of a project and the carbon offsets that occur because of it. According to InderScience Publishers, the average wind project repays its carbon footprint in 5 to 8 months5. This is calculated by comparing the amount of energy generated by the project with the emissions associated with a fossil fuels source generated the same amount.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), based out of the U.S Department of Energy, found that the total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for renewable energy sources are much lower with generally less variability compared to those of fossil fuels. Based on median estimates, the NREL finds that the process of manufacturing to energy production “coal-fired electricity releases about 20 times more GHG per kilowatt-hour than solar, wind, and nuclear electricity.”6 Additionally, coal, industrial gas, lignite, oil and natural gas generate some of the highest GHG emissions per unit of generated electricity7. Therefore renewable energy consistently produces significantly less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than nonrenewables, for the same amount of energy.
Moore states that solar panels have a lifespan of a mere 10 years. This is disproven with just a quick internet search... Most solar panels come with a 25-year warranty. NREL found there is only a median degradation rate of 0.5% in panels per year8. Median degradation rate describes the decrease in energy output of renewable energy sources over time. Therefore not only are solar panels guaranteed to last 15 years longer than explained in the film, but they are also still producing more than 85% capability at 25 years.
Another green technology heavily criticized in the documentary is electric vehicles. The film begins by covering the unveiling of the Chevy Volt by General Motors in 2011. Note that this means all information presented in the clips surrounding its release is nearly 10 years old. Since then, our green technology and knowledge thereof has significantly advanced.
The charging stations used to power the demo Volt are shown to be connected to the Lansing Board of Water and Light (LBWL) power grid, drawing criticism from J. Peter Lark, an employee of LBWL. He states that the grid, which provides energy for 97,000 electric customers, runs off of 95% coal9. At first glance, this statement may deceive the viewer to think that electric vehicles do more harm than good. But what if these charging stations were connected to a power grid that isn’t running off of coal-burning? Planet of the Humans portrays the idea that electric vehicles could run off of 100% renewable energy as an impossible feat. In 2011 this task may have been near impossible, however, in 2020 this is not the case. The LBWL itself is set to shut down both of its coal fired stations over the next 5 years as it moves to replace them with a “cleaner and more reliable energy portfolio, including solar and wind”10.
Lansing isn’t the only place reducing their power grid carbon emissions. Ontario famously phased out its coal fired electricity generation facilities from 2003-2014. Once responsible for 25% of total generation capacity, the phase out resulted in a 28.65Gt CO2 reduction11.
Today, the Government of Canada’s official website shows “in 2018, 96% of Ontario’s electricity is produced from zero-carbon emitting sources: 60% from nuclear, 26% from hydroelectricity, 7% from wind, and 2% from solar.”12 Thus, the actual contribution of electric vehicles to carbon emissions in Ontario is minimal. The U.S. Department of Energy extends upon this, stating that “in geographic areas that use relatively low polluting energy sources for electricity production, plug-in vehicles typically have a life cycle emissions advantage over similar conventional vehicles running on gasoline or diesel.” Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (when in all-electric mode) both emit zero tailpipe emissions, unlike a traditional vehicle13.
Passing off a collection of outdated interviews claims while doing little to no scientific critical examination is poor filmmaking. This film no doubt will live as a stain on the Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker’s record and cast doubt over both his past and future projects. He didn’t just get it wrong, he got it really wrong. We hope that it serves as a reminder for individuals to be critical of information portrayed in the media, no matter the source, and to always investigate further.
The fight against climate change is not over and we must continue to improve upon ourselves and force those in positions of power to do the same. This article is the tip of the iceberg. Planet of the Humans has undeniably sacrificed objective facts for the sake of its subjective argument. With a heavy focus on the dataless critique of renewable energy and no investigation into fossil fuels, the film presents a distorted view of a complex topic.
We have chosen not to address the concept of overpopulation within this article. We will be releasing a follow up covering this topic in the coming weeks.