What a climate change film Michael Moore helped make gets terribly wrong

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To celebrate the occasion, filmmaker Michael Moore dropped a new movie he produced, Planet of the Humans. In less than a week, it has racked up over 3 million views on YouTube.

But the film, directed by Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Moore collaborator, is not the climate message we’ve all been waiting for — it’s a nihilistic take, riddled with errors about clean energy and climate activism. With very little evidence, it claims that renewables are disastrous and that environmental groups are corrupt.

What’s more, it has nothing to say about fossil fuel corporations, who have pushed climate denial and blocked progress on climate policy for decades. Given the film’s loose relationship to facts, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a documentary.

There are real tradeoffs in the clean energy transition. As a scholar, I’ve done my fair share of research and writing on those exact issues over the past decade. Renewables have downsides. As do biomass, nuclear, hydropower, batteries, and transmission. There is no perfect solution to our energy challenges.

But this film does not grapple with these thorny questions; it peddles falsehoods. Films for Action, an online library of free progressive films, agrees with me. It briefly pulled the movie from its site, after documentary filmmaker Josh Fox wrote an open letter, co-signed by climate scientists and energy experts.

“We are disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation — so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site,” Films for Action’s April 25 statement reads. “Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to misinformation.”

Here, I will lay out the case for why this film should have stayed on the cutting room floor.

The film has several factual errors about clean energy

It’s not surprising that the film gets basic energy facts wrong and that information included is out of date: There are hardly any climate or energy experts featured.

Early in the film, Gibbs goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration. He concludes they are dirty because they probably run on coal.

Except it’s not true. Two years ago, electric vehicles already had lower emissions than new gas-powered cars across the country. This is because the US electricity system has been slowly getting cleaner over the past decade.

The film’s wind and solar facts are also old. It quotes efficiency for solar PV from more than a decade ago. And it doesn’t mention the fact that solar costs have plummeted since then, and that we’ve learned how to get more wind and solar onto the grid. The film instead acts like this is impossible to do.

The largest share of the movie’s scorn goes to biomass — generally, burning wood — which supplied less than 2 percent of the US electricity mix last year. But the filmmakers obscure that fact, showing graphs that imply biomass is leading to forest destruction across the US.

When Gibbs questions environmental activists about biomass, they tell him it’s complicated. Because, well, it is.

When we burn wood for electricity, we are using carbon that is already moving between our air, oceans, and land. By contrast, when we dig up and burn fossil fuels, we’re bringing carbon up from underground. That is how we got increasing carbon levels in our atmosphere and oceans. Burning fossil fuels, not wood, is the main cause of climate change. It’s a basic fact I teach to my undergraduates. But the filmmakers neglected to learn it.

That said, biomass can be — and often is — done poorly, with significant environmental harms. Scientists have raised concerns over the European Union’s incentives for renewables leading to wood being shipped from North America. Environmental groups, including the ones pilloried in the film, have criticized the industry. But you wouldn’t learn any of these facts from watching Planet of the Humans.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, leads a panel discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2018. Watching Planet of the Humans, you might mistake him for a robber baron.
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A biased take on the environmental movement

There are critiques that can be made of environmental NGOs. But the way activists are portrayed in this film is inaccurate. One of the film’s main theses is that the climate movement is captured by corporations. As Gibbs puts it, environmentalists are “leading us off the cliff.”

The evidence for this assertion? The Union of Concerned Scientists’ support for electric vehicles. And Sierra Club’s promotion of solar. And the fact that 350.org has received funding from environmental foundations. I fail to see how any of these facts are problematic.

The most egregious attack is made against Bill McKibben, a dedicated and kind environmental leader. As he has said, he has never taken any money for his environmental activism with 350.org. Watching this film, you might mistake him for a robber baron.

McKibben wrote to the filmmakers, to clarify his views. They did not write back. As he put it: “That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith.”

Unlike the uninformed contrarians behind this film, McKibben spent his Earth Day talking with young activists, and pushing banks to stop funding fossil fuels. On April 23, one of those banks, Morgan Stanley committed to not provide financing for drilling in the Arctic refuge. For a “corporate hack,” Bill McKibben sure spends a lot of time taking on corporations. And those corporations in turn spend a lot of time harassing him.

If the corporate capture of the environmental movement is the problem, it’s puzzling why the film has almost nothing to say about corporations themselves. You know, the fossil fuel companies and electric utilities that lied about climate science for 30 years? The climate denial campaign is not mentioned.

Instead, the film denigrates the crucial work of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Led by Mary Anne Hitt, this program helped stop the construction of 200 coal plants, and successfully pushed for the retirement of 300 others.

Rather than recognizing the Sierra Club’s achievement, the filmmakers falsely attribute the growth in natural gas to Beyond Coal. Alas, environmental groups are not in charge of planning new power plants: if they were, we would have a lot less fossil electricity. Utilities propose power plants to regulators, who approve them. Over the past decade, electric utilities have proposed an enormous amount of new gas facilities, which groups like the Sierra Club have opposed.

Perhaps the most insulting thing is that this film comes at a time when the youth climate movement is finally gaining momentum. Young women like Greta Thunberg and Varshini Prakash have helped climate change break into the mainstream. Rather than bolster the work of the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, or Zero Hour, it undermines these activists’ achievements by sowing confusion and doubt.

Michael Moore speaks to an audience at a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at Southwestern Community College on January 31, 2020, in Creston, Iowa.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Why is Michael Moore promoting misinformation on climate change?

Throughout, the filmmakers twist basic facts, misleading the public about who is responsible for the climate crisis. We are used to climate science misinformation campaigns from fossil fuel corporations. But from progressive filmmakers? That’s new.

It’s difficult to understand Michael Moore’s motivations for blaming clean energy and environmental groups instead of fossil fuel companies or electric utilities. His previous films— like Roger & Me, Sicko, and Bowling for Columbine —were centered on holding corporations accountable. More recently, he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders at the same rally as climate champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Sanders campaign centered on an ambitious 100 percent renewable energy goal.

Yet, the film Moore backed concludes that population control, not clean energy, is the answer. This is a highly questionable solution, which has more in common with anti-immigration hate groups than the progressive movement.

The fact is that wealthy people in the developed world have the largest environmental footprints — and they also have the lowest birthrates. When this message is promoted, it’s implying that poor, people of color should have fewer children.

Not to mention the fact that pushing population control is completely disrespectful of women’s reproductive autonomy. Notably, almost all the “experts” featured in the film are white men.

It is sad to think of the world we are leaving for children. Yet, if we embraced clean energy, then they would not have to grow up in a world tied to dirty fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, many people are taking this film seriously. It got 4 out of 5 stars from The Guardian, normally a paragon of climate reporting. And The Late Show with Stephen Colbert gave Moore precious air time to promote it on Earth Day. I would have rather seen Colbert interview a young climate activist. She would have known more about the subject.

We have already warmed the planet by more than 1°C, and we are running out of time to scale up clean energy. Planet of the Humans has sowed confusion at a time when we need clarity on the climate crisis.

My only hope is that this film will be buried, and few will watch it or remember it. Much like fossil fuels, it would be best left underground.

Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her new book, Short Circuiting Policy, examines electric utilities’ role in holding back progress on clean energy and climate policy.