What do Michael Moore and Michael Shellenberger have in common? They’re both spreading climate misinformation. You might have heard of Moore’s controversial Planet of the Humans, but Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never comes from the same camp. Here, we debunk some of the climate myths discussed by the Michaels.
And before you ask: no, neither the book nor the documentary is worth your time. Check out these curated resources instead if you want to get schooled on climate facts.
MYTH #1: Bioenergy is terrible for the climate, but environmentalists still promote it!
Let’s get it straight. “Bioenergy” is an umbrella term, and what you’re probably referring to is wood biomass. Aka: clearing forests and burning wood for energy. And if that sounds like a terrible idea, it kind of is. Let’s be clear: to be fair, the carbon footprint of this “renewable” energy source is debatable because burning waste that would decay anyway is possibly justifiable. (It’s going to waste anyway, right?) But for the most part, climate scientists (and environmentalists) are increasingly calling on policymakers to stop expanding this practice. In fact, hardly anyone thinks it should play a major role in our renewable energy future. According to IRENA’s numbers, it’s global solar PV receiving the largest share of energy subsidies among renewables.
The only “environmentalists” promoting it are the EU regulators, who consider burning wood carbon neutral. Their logic is that the wood being burned would’ve decayed and released its stored carbon and that they can plant new trees. But there’s one obvious logical gap here: burning trees is close to carbon neutral only when the replacement tree becomes mature enough to recapture the lost carbon. In the meantime, the carbon released from burning serves only to accelerate the climate crisis. What do the actual environmentalists have to say about this? 800 scientists pointed out in 2018 that converting coal plants to biomass will increase emissions for decades, if not centuries. And a report released in 2019 by climate think tank Sandbag said that doing so would result in a “staggering” amount of tree cutting, possibly destroying forests faster than they can regrow.
We’ll let you connect the dots on this first one.
MYTH #2: Solar PV is costly and inefficient. And it requires stuff to make it, which requires burning coal, which means it’s bad anyway!
There’s probably a reason why we subsidise solar PV (photovoltaics) the most worldwide. And also why Project Drawdown lists it as one of its top climate solutions. In fact, Project Drawdown highlights that in many parts of the world, solar PV is now cost-competitive or less costly than conventional power generation. In rural parts of low-income countries, they can even become “a powerful tool for eliminating poverty”. And who said it was inefficient? Perhaps it was inefficient a decade ago, but today, solar PV returns a high energy dividend.
The only claim that sort of holds here is the fact that solar PV requires “stuff” to make it. Solar panels, like wind turbines and hydroelectric dams, are made with raw materials that need to be mined, transported and manufactured. Supply chains, unexpectedly, can get dirty. Innovation can help, and even though it’s not going to solve the problem entirely (there’s still a lot of uncertainty), to truly understand the impact of this “stuff”, we need to zoom out. This is why researchers do life cycle analyses: calculating all of the pollution, energy and land use impacts, etc. (Think cradle-to-grave, if you’re familiar with the circular economy.) Point is, if we do this, we’ll find out that generating one unit of energy from renewables like solar and wind is “much, much cleaner than from fossil fuels.”
MYTH #3: EVs are still powered by coal anyway, so they’re problematic and it’s all greenwashing.
Debunking this myth is kind of similar to what we talked about earlier regarding solar PV. Electric cars, even if they’re dependent on fossil fuels like coal or natural gas, have been shown to emit fewer emissions and pollutants over their lifetime than standard petrol or diesel cars. Anyway, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that countries that put in place transport system adjustments to make EVs more friendly are probably also working to get more renewables to supply their power grids. Of course, greenwashing happens. Green capitalists—more on them later—will have you think that switching to EVs, powered by 100% renewables, alone will save the world. But that’s why we also need to think about how we can rebuild a world that moves beyond private ownership and towards efficient and accessible public transport.
And you can bet that writing off EVs as a whole won’t help us get there.
MYTH #4: You can’t replace fossil fuel with renewables. Coal is being replaced by gas.
This one is not so clear-cut. First: it is true that natural gas is growing. In fact, it’s been rising since 2009, according to the IEA. And it is the cleanest of fossil fuels—producing about half the emissions as compared to burning coal—which explains why fossil fuel companies are so keen to switch to this. (And why countries like Singapore and the US are stubbornly pursuing it.) But don’t let them greenwash you: natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Which brings us to the second point: renewables are growing, and we shouldn’t underestimate the speed of this growth. Look at BP’s 2019 “Energy Outlook” report: renewables are the largest source of energy growth in global power markets.
The real debate that this climate myth is often getting at is this: can we get to 100% renewables? Because often, the reasoning behind natural gas is that it keeps the lights on. The wind and sun are unreliable. And energy storage costs too much to invest in. These are genuine concerns. But we also know this: we have to get to 100% renewables. The future is fossil-free. So how do we get there? Here’s one nuanced response:
Which reminds us of the final point in this debate. We can get to 100% renewables, but we can’t do it the way we’ve always been doing it. As Read and Rughani acknowledge, “the human future will be one of huge energy-descent.” Debating about whether we can get to 100% renewables while listening to green capitalists who tell us all we need to do is just switch to renewables (and maintain human civilisation as is) is pointless. We need to be able to question how we’ve been doing things, and learning more about degrowth is a start. And no, degrowth is not the same as saying “overpopulation” is the problem. Let’s talk about that…
MYTH #5: Overpopulation is a problem, and we need to have fewer people on the planet to solve the climate crisis.
Here’s a hard pill to swallow: anyone who says overpopulation is the problem is missing the point and is probably eco-fascist. Why? It’s true that population pressures do contribute to lesser resources left. But here are some facts. The global population is rising by 1% a year. Consumption has been rising at a steady 3%. High consumption is rampant in countries with low population growth. Contrasting that is this: in countries with high population growth, consumption tends to be extremely low. These countries are also, more often than not, inhabited by black and brown folk.
Which brings us to the crux… As George Monbiot puts it, plain and simple: “This claim is inherently racist rich white people blaming poor brown people, for an environmental problem which is mainly created by rich white people. This emerges from a very long-standing discourse, a discourse which really arose with colonialism, and was used as one of the justifications of colonialism.” Monbiot highlights that it’s not that population concerns aren’t legitimate at all, but rather that it’s not the main cause, and it also contributes to “long-standing moral panic”. If you’re going to say overpopulation is a problem, try thinking about affluence or consumption instead.
“Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.” (These are words from Monbiot too, by the way.) And speaking of bad arguments…
MYTH #6: Climate change causes extreme events.
Are you surprised? Us too. But… this statement isn’t exactly a myth. As Dr. Gleick writes for Yale Climate Connections: “One of the most prevalent strawman arguments in the climate debate is that scientists claim climate change “causes” extreme events, when in fact, climate scientists make careful distinctions between “causality” and “influence” – two very different things.” We cover extreme events relatively often with our weekly Conscious Scoop, and many of these events are in fact influenced by climate change. (Which is in turn influenced and caused by us.) “A large and growing body of literature,” Dr. Gleick highlights, “already shows strong links between climate change and extreme events, including hurricanes, heat deaths, flooding, decreasing ice, and more”.
Which is to say that we can still link climate change and extreme events—don’t let the misguided detractors tell you otherwise.
MYTH #7: Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”.
You’d think that people are able to see how humans are destroying the planet by now (see: environmental destruction and addiction to fossil fuels). But some still have the cheek to deny that humans (or more specifically: the actions of powerful humans and institutions) are destroying the planet. Not to worry though: this myth can be debunked with climate science. Which shows that human activities are driving species extinction worldwide. According to the IPBES, “degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is negatively impacting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, pushing the planet towards a sixth mass extinction.”
The rates of extinction that we’re seeing today (across all kinds of species) are much lower than estimated background extinction rates (aka: standard rates of extinction in earth’s geological and biological history before humans became a primary contributor to extinctions). Here’s just one example. Conservatively, almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last 100 years. The estimated background extinction rate? For 200 vertebrate species: approximately 10,000 years.
As with the previous myth, statements like these sound like good hot takes. But they’re not backed up by, and in fact distract from, climate science. And speaking of misrepresenting climate science…
Myth #8: Scientific uncertainty = “we don’t know”.
The last myth we’ll debunk for today is one that takes us back to the basics of climate science. Climate deniers and sceptics, and everyone in between really, sometimes misunderstand a very basic concept of “uncertainty”. It is not the same as the way we think about uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. Scientists use “uncertainty” to present, as Dr. Gleick writes, “a range of possibilities”. Even if research contains a high level of uncertainty, it does not mean it is “unscientific”. Dr. Gleick references the late climate scientist Dr. Stephen Schneider, who says: “It is precisely because the responsible scientific community cannot rule out such catastrophic outcomes at a high level of confidence that climate mitigation policies are seriously proposed.” Which is to say that uncertainty gives us more reason, rather than less, to act.
If you’re looking to find out more about basic climate science, we highly recommend the Climate Science, Risk & Solutions site by MIT to start. (And as a final reminder: don’t bother watching Planet of the Humans, or reading Apocalypse Never.)