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.