29 April 2020

Planet of the Humans is not ‘dynamite’, but it deserves to bomb

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There aren’t many things capable of uniting hardline climate sceptics and the sort of far-left environmental activists you might find at an Extinction Rebellion rally. However, Planet of the Humans, a new documentary by Jeff Gibbs which targets mainstream environmentalism and the clean energy industry, manages to do exactly that.

Released last week to coincide with Earth Day and free to watch on YouTube, the film is executive produced by Michael Moore, perhaps this century’s most successful political documentary filmmaker. Moore bills the film, which racked up more than three million views in its first week online, as a “full-frontal assault on our sacred cows”. Some on the Right are thrilled by this exposé of what they see as the great big green scam. Over at Breitbart, James Delingpole calls the film’s message “dynamite”. “Hurry, see Planet of the Humans before it is banned,” says Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cooler Heads Initiative, a climate change outlier who thinks the film is “a stunning evisceration of so-called green energy”. 

The film’s central claim, and the argument that has the two extremes of the climate debate singing in surprising harmony, is that renewables like solar and wind are a scam that cannot deliver on their promise of a low-carbon future.

Gibbs sets out his case with the kind of gotcha moments that made his co-conspirator Moore famous. Some are admittedly quite funny, like when the weather takes a turn for the worse and a “solar energy festival” has to fire up a generator to keep the show on the road. But none of them are the smoking gun that Gibbs clearly thinks they are. It’s obviously true that electric cars are only as green as the power source used to charge them, but what is achieved by forcing a General Motors executive to say so on camera? We see Gibbs and co traipse around the perimeter fences of various renewable power sites, pointing at some cables or other paraphernalia and claiming this is evidence that what is supposed to be good and green is nothing of the sort. Exactly what any of this demonstrates is not properly explained.

We are told that because solar panels and wind turbines are made from, you know, stuff, and that there isn’t an infinite supply of that stuff, they aren’t in fact renewable. To make matters worse, all that stuff has to be mined! Cue footage of dirty diggers, toppling trees and loud, messy factories. According to the film, solar energy relies on “the most toxic and most industrial processes ever created”. It also turns out that constructing a turbine with massive blades attached and capable of turning wind into electricity is actually quite complicated. Because all of this is grey and brown and sad, not green and blue and happy, it must be bad for the environment. The intended effect is to leave viewers with the impression that wind and solar energy are so environmentally damaging that the differences between them and dirty old coal are overstated at best, and negligible at worst. 

Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on the hazy impressions left by Planet of the Humans to compare these sources of energy. According to a US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s study of lifecycle assessments, coal power produces about 980 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour of energy produced. The figure for wind energy is just 11 grams. For solar, the NREL’s best guess is around 50 grams. In other words, it isn’t even close. And life cycle assessments factor in the carbon produced making the turbines and panels — all that messy industrial manufacturing that has the film’s cast of ecowarriors so worried.

“Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilisation to save us from industrial civilisation,” asks Gibbs, mistakenly thinking that the question answers itself — and that he is saying something interesting. Gibbs holds every energy source he comes across — including the genuinely more contentious area of biomass — to an absurdly high standard: either it can singlehandedly replace fossil fuels, or it is a con. This is a canard, and a well-rehearsed one among climate sceptics. 

Unsurprisingly, Gibbs, whose crunchy earnestness is best exemplified by his unironic use of the phrase “commune with nature”, makes no mention of nuclear energy, which he doubtless sees an unconscionable betrayal of Mother Nature. Nor is anyone in Planet of the Humans willing to contemplate the possibility that renewable energy’s efficiency will improve, in spite of considerable gains made in recent years. To claim that at least part of the solution may lie in innovation and, whisper it, innovation incentivised by market forces, is to identify oneself as an enemy of planet earth — or a rube who has swallowed their propaganda.  

Planet of the Humans makes a two-part argument. First, climate change threatens the existence of the human race (an inaccurate and overblown way to describe an undoubtedly very grave problem). Second, renewable energy, which has been sold to us as the way to avoid that that less-than-ideal outcome, will not save us. Not exactly a cheery hypothesis so you might expect there to be a third part to the case made in Planet of the Humans: the “here’s what we need to do instead” bit. But it is only ever hinted at.

And that is the cowardice of Planet of the Humans that masquerades as bravery. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Gibbs talks about “the elephant in the living room”: “the profit motive” in general and “the cancerous kind of capitalism that rules the world, now hiding under a cover of green”. It’s “the reason we’ve been force fed the story ‘climate change plus renewables equals we’re saved’”; it’s the reason “we’re not talking about overpopulation, consumption and the suicide of economic growth”.

One suspects Gibbs is happier pointing out the taboo and railing against capitalism in general than actually breaking it, and discussing all the unconscionable policies that such thinking can justify. For this darkly Malthusian world view’s quarrel isn’t with capitalism per se, but with the human progress it has spurred. The problem is that there are so many of us, and we’re all living longer and doing more than we once did. For Gibbs, the people and the planet are in direct conflict and, given the choice, one suspects Gibbs sides with the planet. 

The more urgent the climate problem gets, the less relevant hardline environmentalism feels. A romantic idea of an unspoilt planet has helped millions wise up to the climate change challenge but, as Planet of the Humans demonstrates, it can also become an argument against the interventions needed to both minimise warming and mitigate its consequences. 

Much of the film is spent filling the obvious gap in Gibbs’s argument: if renewable energy is a sham, why do so many climate change activists buy into it? Why, capitalism, of course. Gibbs argues that climate change campaigners have been bought, producing an unconvincing slew of evidence. The environmentalist Bill McKibben, who runs 350.org, comes in for particular scorn. The rap-sheet includes damning evidence, like appearances on panels alongside bankers, meetings with prominent politicians, and even conversations with people who stand to gain financially from renewable energy.

Perhaps this is because McKibben, and those like him, have taken the hush money (though McKibben’s forceful rebuttal would suggest otherwise). Or perhaps a world in which politicians, bankers and billionaires — and not just fringe environmentalists — say and do things that suggest they are worried about climate change is a world that, albeit belatedly, is taking climate change seriously. 

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Oliver WIseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.