April 30, 2020
Last week, anti-hydrocarbon activist and documentary maker Josh Fox — along with Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, and several others — succeeded in briefly getting Michael Moore’s new documentary, Planet of the Humans, taken off of a website owned by a group called Films for Action.
Fox’s censorship effort was cheered by Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and journalist who tweeted “cheers to @joshfoxfilm and everyone who worked hard and quickly to make sure this dangerous film was retracted.” The DailyKos dutifully ran a story with the headline “Distributor pulls Michael Moore’s (@MMFlint’s) #PlanetOfTheHumans due to truthiness.”
But the “dangerous film” didn’t disappear. Planet of the Humans, which was directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs, was never removed from YouTube. By Thursday afternoon, it had been viewed more than 4.6 million times. Fox’s censorship campaign led Planet of the Humans to post a note on its website saying that it does not “know of, or have any relationship with, an outfit called ‘Films for Action,’” and that any “information disseminated to the contrary is false.”
I have plenty of criticisms of Planet of the Humans. It’s an anti-human film that ignores our need for affordable and reliable energy to survive. It ignores the need for nuclear energy to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and it completely ignores the scourge of energy poverty. That’s an inexcusable omission given that about one billion people on the planet today have no access to electricity and another two billion or so are only using tiny amounts of juice.
But it’s also apparent that Planet of the Humans is an important film. The fact that Moore — the most successful documentary-film-maker in America as well as its most famous liberal who’s not a politician – would produce a film that attacks wind energy, solar energy, the Sierra Club, Al Gore, David Blood, Bill McKibben, and Vinod Khosla represents a rupture in left-leaning orthodoxy about energy and climate change. For causing so much trouble, Moore and Gibbs are being branded as apostates. To my ear, the outrage coming from Fox, McKibben, and others to Planet of the Humans sound like Greta Thunberg’s now-famous cri de coeur: “How dare you!”
But the effort to gag Planet of the Humans reveals something more sinister: the refusal by leading climate activists and academics to have an honest discussion about the limits of renewable energy and why renewables alone cannot save us from climate change or solve the problem of energy poverty. As a friend of mine put it, “The climatocracy can’t tolerate debate or disagreement.” Indeed, the belief that many high-profile climate activists and academics have in renewable energy borders on the cultish. As Gibbs asks at one point in the film, “Could we have a religion that we are unaware of?”
Attempting to shut down debate and demonizing the opposition is one of the hallmarks of the all-renewable-energy tribe. And there’s no small bit of irony in the fact that Fox’s effort to censor Planet of the Humans was launched just two days after his ally, Jacobson, was reproached by a federal court for trying to intimidate one of his critics by filing a frivolous lawsuit against him. On April 20, Jacobson was ordered to pay the legal fees of Chris Clack, the Colorado mathematician who Jacobson sued in 2017 for $10 million on claims that Clack had defamed him. Jacobson’s lawsuit, which also named the National Academy of Sciences, was a classic example of a SLAPP suit, or strategic litigation against public participation. What was Clack’s sin? He, along with nearly two dozen other prominent scientists, debunked the claims that Jacobson was making about – what else? — renewable energy.
Before delving into the details of the SLAPP suit, it’s worthwhile to recall how Fox used Jacobson’s work to help justify his effort to censor Moore and Gibbs. On April 22, Fox, who directed the 2010 film Gasland, tweeted that Planet of the Humans “disregards the #GreenNewDeal, the 100% renewable energy plans of Stanford University…and the basic foundations of science upon which renewable energy policy and the power that the climate movement has built upon for the last 40 years.”
On April 24, Fox again took to Twitter saying “Thank you to the early co-signers of the letter demanding an apology from @mmflint.” Among those Fox listed: @michalemann, the Twitter handle for Michael Mann, the Penn State climate scientist who sued several of his critics for defamation in 2012. Another was @mzjacobson, the Twitter handle for Jacobson.
It’s important to note that Fox and his tribe didn’t want to debate Moore about renewables, they were demanding an apology from him. Heretics mustn’t just repent, they must apologize.
In 2015, Jacobson published a paper, co-written with Mark Delucchi, a research engineer at the University of California-Berkeley, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper, which claimed to offer “a low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem” with 100-percent renewables, went on to win the Cozzarelli Prize, an annual award handed out by the National Academy of Sciences. A Stanford web site said that Jacobson’s paper was one of six chosen by “the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from the more than 3,000 research articles published in the journal in 2015.”
Jacobson’s all-renewables-and-nothing-but-renewables energy scheme made him a darling of liberal politicians, environmental groups, and climate activists. Funders of a group he founded, The Solutions Project, include the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Bill Nye, and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.
Bernie Sanders adopted Jacobson’s all-renewable plan as the energy platform for his 2016 presidential bid. McKibben, who was prominently featured (and skewered) in Planet of the Humans, has repeatedly touted Jacobson’s all-renewable schemes. In a 2016 story for The New Republic McKibben, one of America’s highest-profile climate activists, wrote that Jacobson’s work “demonstrates conclusively” that the U.S. could generate all of its energy needs from “sun, wind and water” by 2050. In a 2017 article for In These Times, McKibben again lauded Jacobson, saying that his plans show “how the United States could generate all its energy from the sun, the wind and the falling water that produces hydropower…the 100 percent target is becoming less an aspirational goal and more the obvious solution.”
But in June 2017, Clack and 20 other top scientists published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that demolished Jacobson’s 2015 paper. Clack and his co-authors — who included Dan Kammen of the University of California-Berkeley, former EPA Science Advisory Board Chair Granger Morgan, and Jane Long of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — concluded that Jacobson’s work contained “numerous shortcomings and errors.” They also said the paper used “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” Those errors, “render it unreliable as a guide about the likely cost, technical reliability, or feasibility of a 100-percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power system.”
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in Jacobson’s scheme involves the massive amount of land his plan would require. Jacobson’s all-renewable idea called for the installation of nearly 2.5 terawatts (2.5 trillion watts) of wind energy capacity, with the majority of that amount onshore. Clack and his colleagues found that accommodating all of the wind turbines needed to achieve Jacobson’s all-renewable vision would require “nearly 500,000 square kilometers, which is roughly 6 percent of the continental United States and more than 1,500 square meters of land for wind turbines for each American.”
Rather than engage in a civil debate with Clack, Jacobson sued him for defamation. He also sued the National Academy of Sciences for $10 million claiming breach of contract. Then, in February 2018, Jacobson suddenly withdrew his suit and the litigation was largely forgotten. But on April 20, (as journalist James Temple first reported on Twitter), District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Carroll Wingo issued a ruling that sided with Clack and the National Academy of Sciences, and ordered Jacobson to pay their legal fees.
In her decision, Wingo (who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2015) noted that the District of Columbia’s Anti-SLAPP Act prohibits the filing of lawsuits aimed at limiting public participation. She wrote that the statements made by Clack and his co-authors in their 2017 paper “simply do not” accuse Jacobson “of any misconduct or impugn his integrity. The Court has reviewed the Complaint, the motion and the related pleadings as well as the attachments thereto, and finds that the three asserted ‘egregious errors’ are statements reflecting scientific disagreements…they simply do not attack Dr. Jacobson’s honesty or accuse him of misconduct.” It goes on, saying that challenges to whether or not Jacobson’s methodology and conclusions are good or bad is “a question best resolved in the scientific or academic forum, not the court.”
In her conclusion, Wingo wrote that the “Anti-SLAPP Act was enacted to protect the right of advocacy on issues of public interest against lawsuits intended to punish or censor speech. The safeguards provided by the Act including reasonable attorney’s fees and costs are critical parts of the statute that must serve its purpose and be upheld. Defendants are entitled to recoup such fees…” (To view the filings in the SLAPP suit, use this link. Case Number: 2017 CA 006685 B)
In an email, Clack told me “I deeply appreciate the Court’s decision, which represents complete vindication for my position, that Courts are not the proper forum to resolve important scientific disagreements. The Judge’s order provides helpful legal precedent that should allow scientists to express themselves responsibly on vital societal issues without having to be concerned with the prospect of economic reprisal in the form of retaliatory litigation.”
How much will Jacobson have to pay for his SLAPP suit? When I asked Clack for an estimate, he replied that his lawyers are working to “to recover all our legal costs and fees caused by this unwarranted litigation.” Due to the large number of pleadings and complexity of the case, Clack’s legal fees could total as much as $500,000. That sounds like a lot. But court filings show that Clack was represented by Drew Marrocco, a lawyer at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm. The National Academy of Sciences was represented by Evangeline Paschal, a lawyer at Hunton Andrews Kurth, another large law firm. Thus, when counting the plaintiffs’ costs and his own lawyer bills, Jacobson could be facing legal fees of $1 million or more for filing a SLAPP suit that should have never been filed in the first place.
The punchline here is that despite efforts by high-profile activists and academics to stifle debate, films like Planet of the Humans aren’t going to be stopped. Instead, the film — and the controversy it has ignited — shows how badly we need an honest discussion about how we are going to meet demand for electricity, the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy.
Planet of the Humans will be remembered because it has sparked a long-overdue debate about the myriad problems with renewables, a list that includes land-use conflicts, intermittency, availability of rare-earth elements, mining, and the lethal toll that wind energy is having on birds and bats. Sure, renewables will grow in the years ahead. But they aren’t enough, not by a long shot. The sooner we accept that fact, the better.
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