Michael Moore's New Film Turns Heroes into Villains and Villains into Heroes | Opinion

File this one under the category of "with friends like this": None other than liberal icon Michael Moore has now joined the ranks of the renewable energy-bashers. Working with Director Jeff Gibbs, his long-time collaborator on left-of-center polemics like the anti-NRA Bowling for Columbine and anti-Bush/Iraq War "Fahrenheit 9/11" Moore has, in his new film "Planet of the Humans" ("POTH") promoted a full-on assault on renewable energy. Though Gibbs directed the doc, Moore put the full weight of his celebrity into the project, doing the talk show circuit, and flacking the film like next month's rent depended on it. Make no mistake: This is a Michael Moore film and Moore's reputational wagon is firmly hitched to it.

The fatal flaws in the film have been enumerated in excruciating detail elsewhere. They include 1) the deceptive use of data, photographs and interviews that are a decade old to dramatically overstate the limitations, and understate the efficiency and capacity of current-day renewable energy sources and storage technology, (2) complaining that a still largely fossil fuel-driven electricity grid is used in the construction of solar panels and wind turbines without noting that the lifecycle carbon emissions are tiny compared to either coal or gas, and that decarbonization of the grid is precisely what the renewable energy transition is about, and (3) providing grossly inflated estimates of the carbon footprint of biofuels and biomass (which is tiny compared to that of fossil fuels) and failing to note that biomass accounts for only 2 percent of domestic electricity generation, though Moore & Gibbs spend ~50 percent of the film complaining about it.

As one observer summarized it, "You would never know [from watching POTH] that the intermittency problem is being solved, and the storage problem too. You would never know that the problem of decarbonizing the grid has been front and center on the renewables agenda for decades, and that the electric car people know it all too well. You would never know that the technology revolution is well and widely understood to be necessary but not sufficient to the green transition. All of which is to say that this would have maybe been a good movie 20 years ago. Maybe"

Moore not only couldn't get a major distributor to adopt the film. He couldn't even get Netflix or any other major streaming platforms to show it. So he ended up posting it for free on Youtube on Earth Day as if his intention was to launch a hand grenade that would produce maximum collateral damage to action on climate.

While numerous other commentaries having now exposed the critical flaws in the film, a mostly overlooked aspect of the film is the way it so perfectly plays into a larger agenda underway aimed at forestalling action on climate. The forces of climate denial and delay—fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, "dark money" outfits, and fossil fueled petrostates—can no longer insist nothing is happening. They have instead shifted to a softer form of denialism, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on distraction, deception, deflection, and despair-mongering—what I've termed the New Climate War.

One challenge we face in this new war on climate action is the wedge that has emerged within the climate movement when it comes to market-driven climate solutions. Moore and Gibbs attempt to pry that wedge wide open. The fact that wind and solar energy are increasingly profitable is somehow an indication, to them, that they're "bad". In the words of the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Moore seems "particularly aghast to discover that...any transition to green energy will require massive investment from evil industrialists and capitalists who might turn a profit. Who knew?".

So heroes become villains and villains, ironically, become heroes. Climate champion Bill McKibben is vilified for having once, long ago, supported the limited use of biomass energy. Al Gore is attacked for supposedly being "more focused on cashing in than saving the planet" (couldn't a similar argument be made about Michael Moore and his $50 million net worth?). Moore and Gibbs were apparently "shocked to find a company owned by Charles and David Koch receiving solar tax credits". Now, there are many reasons to dislike the Koch Brothers—but the fact that they invested in solar energy is not one of them. Only in the Trumpian era of gaslighting could a progressive filmmaker produce a polemic premised on the absurd notion that ultra-right-wing plutocrats are secretly behind the effort to end our dependence on fossil fuels. And get progressives to actually fall for it.

Then there is the defeatism and despair-mongering. As the Guardian put it, "Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face". Writing for Films for Action, award-winning long-time environmental filmmaker Neal Livingston is even harsher: "SHAME on these filmmakers for making a film like this, full of misinformation and disinformation, to intentionally depress audiences, and make them think there are no alternatives...Let me make it absolutely clear that the new documentary, Planet of the Humans, by Jeff Gibbs — with executive producer Michael Moore, is inaccurate, misleading and designed to depress you into doing nothing."Doomism and the loss of hope can lead people down the very same path of inaction as outright denial. The forces of inaction don't care about the path you take, just the destination. And they love this sort of framing.

Finally, we get some classic deflection. Technically, Moore and Gibbs do advance one "solution". Rather than focusing on the systemic source of the problem--our reliance of fossil fuels, however, Moore and Gibbs deflect attention toward individual behavior, a classic New Climate War tactic. The twist here is that it's all about the behavior of others. Environmental author Ketan Joshi remarks that Moore "ends up at population control – a cruel, evil and racist ideology that you can see coming right from the start of the film, while Earther's Brian Kahn notes "Over the course of the movie, [Gibbs] interviews a cast of mostly white experts who are mostly men to make that case...There's a reason that Breitbart and other conservative voices aligned with climate denial and fossil fuel companies have taken a shine to the film. It's because it ignores the solution of holding power to account and sounds like a racist dog whistle." (It is worth noting, by the way, that people in the developing world, where the main population growth is taking place, have a tiny carbon footprint in comparison with those in the industrial world. The problem isn't so much "too many people". It's "too many people who burn a lot of carbon").

And look who else is praising and promoting the film. It's not just Breitbart News who is "full of gratitude and admiration that they should have made this bold, brave documentary". Fossil Fuel-funded groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the Heartland Institute (as well as their payed attack-dog Anthony Watts) had a field day with the film. CEI encouraged people to "Hurry [and] see Planet of the Humans before it's banned", while the Heartland Institute promoted the film in their latest podcast. Watts advertised the film as an "Earth Day Epic". Industry-funded denier for hire (and self-avowed "junk man") Steve Milloy insisted that "EU politicians...be forced to watch Michael Moore's "Planet of the Humans"... with their eyes clamped open if necessary". Other fossil fuel industry shills, like Marc Morano of CFACT promoted the film and attacked its critics on social media. A feeding frenzy was manufactured on twitter thanks to the massive army of Trollbots doing the same, released perhaps by bad state actors known for this prevalent modus operandi in the New Climate War.

We may never know the motives behind this ill-premised, intellectually dishonest stunt by Michael Moore & Jeff Gibbs. What we do know is that their misguided polemic furthers the agenda of fossil fuel interests and their tactic of denial, delay, distraction and deflection by feeding misleading and false narratives about renewable energy. Moore and Gibbs are setting back the cause of societal and economic decarbonization this is so critical to averting catastrophic planetary warming. Unless they do a dramatic about face, they will go down in history as having sided with wealthy, powerful polluters, rather than "the people" they purport to care about, in the defining battle of our time.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​