Suzanne Anton: Michael Moore’s latest film is remarkable not because it has stirred outrage – he always does – but because of who he's outraged this time.
Congolese children in rags searching through the muds for rare earth metals, dead wind turbines covering formerly scenic mountaintops, ruined solar farms, raptors torn to pieces by turbine blades: scenes which may lead to a certain skepticism about renewable energies.
Should we worry about, or should we have confidence in renewable energy?
Filmmaker Michael Moore, well-known as a decidedly left-wing documentarian, has made it clear where he stands. He zeroes in on the flaws of the green energy industry and its backers in his new film, Planet of the Humans.
Moore has stirred things up. Climate activists are outraged. People featured in the film are shocked at their own portrayal (welcome to politics). And the audience is interested; by the time you read this, the film will have been seen by over three million viewers – after only a few days on YouTube.
Moore takes aim at power from solar panels, wind energy, biomass, and biofuels.
Solar energy is the holy grail of renewables. Solar panels can be extremely useful, particularly in BC where it doesn’t take long to get away from the grid.
But do solar arrays work as a replacement energy for our regular daily needs? At the moment, not a chance, says Moore. They require vast resources to build and install. They have a limited lifespan, and are intermittent, meaning they can’t operate without full back-up from conventional energy sources.
It gives Moore particular pleasure to go backstage at various solar installations, be they at a small festival or a vast Tesla factory, and observe the hook-up to conventional diesel or grid energy. In spite of grand plans and enthusiastic opening speeches, nothing is “powered entirely by solar energy.”
Wind energy requires enormous turbines, often built in the air currents favoured by large raptors. They chew up mountaintops, have a short life span and are perceived by many as visual blights on the landscape.
Over the course of the film, Moore becomes increasingly horrified at the biofuels/biomass industry, describing it as a series of tragic decisions by environmental leaders.
One of the unexpected results of increased CO2 in the atmosphere is that the Earth is greening. But the greening may be limited in the vicinity of biomass plants, where large tracts of forest are mowed down for fuel.
Ethanol is another product of questionable value. BC owners of boats, chainsaws, and lawnmowers aren’t happy about ethanol in fuels, which gum up the motor and shorten the life of the machine.
But far worse is the harm caused by its production. The film has some incredibly distressing scenes of indigenous people in Brazil pushed off their land so sugar cane can be grown for use in ethanol. (Switching land from food production to producing fuel is a bad idea we should abandon forthwith.)
Moore heaps scorn at environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and 350.org for hypocrisy. I confess, I particularly enjoyed the scene where the greatest American cheerleader for the destruction of Canada’s energy industry, Bill McKibben of 350.org, pretends he has no idea where his funding is coming from. Sorry Bill, no one believes you.
So where does the film leave us? Moore goes into Malthusian themes of the need to reduce the population. I’m not with him on that, and don’t believe we need to go there.
Clearly the issues are complex.
Renewable energy proponents argue that Moore’s information is outdated, wind and solar are getting better and cheaper every year, and that they are indeed viable alternatives to completely replace fossil fuels.
I don’t believe we need to spend too much time thinking about large scale solar panel or wind projects in BC, simply because we’re fortunate in that there’s no need. We are an energy-rich province in an energy-rich country, with ready access to reliable energy.
Renewables make up about 95% of energy production in BC. Some wind, some biomass, but the majority is from hydroelectric power – which I like to think of as another form of solar power; just consider how the water gets behind the dam.
BC has dams built nearly 120 years ago (Buntzen Lake), and dams under construction today (Site C). Some of the more interesting new hydro projects are run-of-river, such as that on Kwoiek Creek, run by the Kanaka Bar First Nation.
Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning of fossil fuels, and BC has very large reserves. Developing an LNG export plant was a signature project of the BC Liberal government I served in, and continues to be supported by Premier Horgan’s NDP.
Western Canada also has oil, the most responsibly produced in the world. Its price is low at the moment, but in the long term it should be a golden goose for our country. Campaigners like McKibben and the Sierra Club have spent decades getting in the way of Canada’s oil production and distribution. Their efforts have allowed US buyers to get Canadian oil at a discount, a multi-billion dollar loss to Canada.
We couldn’t afford that loss before; it’s intolerable now.
Planet of the Humans tells us that there are no easy answers. Fortunately in BC, we have some.
Hon. Suzanne Anton QC is a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of British Columbia and a former Vancouver City Councillor