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Everyone-everywhere Mission

Gabrielle Walker
Gabrielle Walker
Everyone-everywhere Mission

Gabrielle’s review of the controversial film produced by Michael Moore, Planet of the Humans, for the Times Literary Supplement, July 2020. In it, she highlights the mindsets of Doomism, Purism and Exclusivism and argues that they are unhelpful for the climate cause. 

“WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, who needs enemies?” cried many in the climate movement when Michael Moore brought out his new film, Planet of the Humans, on Earth Day (April 22). The documentary applied a large boot to some of the most celebrated solutions to the climate crisis – notably renewable energy, electric vehicles and biofuels. Although the boot was effectively worn by Moore’s long-time collaborator Jeff Gibbs, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, Moore was the executive producer, and his name is firmly branded on it. Unable to find a distributer, Moore put the movie free on YouTube; it has since notched up nearly 9 million views.

Planet of the Humans is a polemic, and its arguments are tired. Gibbs includes twelve-year-old foot- age of himself critiquing early incarnations of the renewables industry, but since that time, the price of solar and wind power has plummeted, while the technology has spectacularly improved. This is akin to making a documentary about mobile phones, based on information from before the iPhone. Gibbs also “reveals” that electric vehicles don’t help the climate if the electricity they run on has been generated by coal. The world has been alert to this from the start, which is why every sensible climate plan includes the decarbonization of the electricity grid. Electric vehicles in Europe already produce some 30 per cent fewer emissions than their petrol and diesel counterparts, and as decarbonization progresses the difference is getting steadily bigger.

Others have highlighted many similar errors or blind alleys in the documentary; more significant is the broader picture. For Gibbs and Moore are guilty of advancing three common, and damaging, atti- tudes that I believe are significantly hampering the world’s efforts to combat climate change. I call them purism, doomism and exclusivism. And it is in these that much of the climate struggle really lies.

Purism is the conviction that any climate solutions have to be “natural” and somehow non- or anti-capitalist. Much of Gibbs’s criticism of renewable electricity, for example, rests on the grounds that it is a functioning capitalist industry, involving corporations and financiers. But climate change is a global- scale problem and businesses will need to be the delivery arm for global-scale solutions. As Rebecca Henderson argues in her recent book, Reimagining Capitalism (PublicAffairs, $28), while we are currently “destroying the world and the social fabric in the service of a quick buck”, there are already many examples of businesses that are already part of the solution – from Walmart’s sustainability plan, launched back in 2005, to the Hong Kong power firm CLP’s drive to replace coal. This year, promises on net-zero emissions have been made by companies such as BP, Shell, Unilever and Microsoft, the latter promising to achieve it within the next ten years. By 2050 it expects to have sucked all of its historical emissions back out of the atmosphere, giving it a lifetime carbon footprint of zero and setting a bold new standard for climate ambition.

Partly, these businesses are driven by the profit motive, and Henderson shows how this can be much less sinister than Gibbs and Moore seem to think. Businesses make money by providing what people need, and right now, particularly as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, we need jobs, economic recovery and a way of doing business that doesn’t destroy our home. Henderson details the many ways in which climate-friendly business strategies provide all three. She also explains the power of “renewed purpose”: “twenty years of research have taught me that the firms that were able to change were those that had a reason to do so”.

Another reason that businesses are pivoting to a new model is that their investors are telling them to. In Planet of the Humans Gibbs completely misses the climate revolution that has been taking place in the world of finance over the past few years. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England and Christine Lagarde, the current head of the European Central Bank, have put climate action at the heart of their endeavours. The amount of money controlled by signatories to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment has now topped $100 trillion. And the activist organization ClimateAction100+, which uses shareholder resolutions at AGMs to push changes to the strategies of the world’s biggest polluters, has rapidly gone from fringe to mainstream. It now even boasts Blackrock – the world’s biggest asset manager – as one of its members.

Henderson brilliantly sets out how and why this revolution has taken place. Partly this is due to the mounting evidence that unchecked climate change is very bad for business – and that investing in companies that are ignorant of climate risks is likely to lose you money. Funds based on ESG factors (environ- mental, social and governance) have outcompeted more conventional ones during the time of Covid-19 precisely because the companies that consider these factors are much better able to deal with the sorts of shocks the twenty-first century is throwing at us.

Moreover, when it comes to dealing with climate change, the purists who want to eschew financial solutions are missing one of the biggest tricks: pension funds. I am repeatedly exasperated by the way people on both the left and right fail to make the connection between their own pensions, or savings, and the fight against climate change. Pension funds collectively control some $40 trillion of global investments. When this money is redirected towards climate-friendly investments, and away from those doing harm, it will be a game-changer. This message also comes out strongly in The Future We Choose: Surviving the climate crisis (Manilla Press, £12.99) by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac – the best of a recent crop of books counselling positivity in the face of the climate crisis. Figueres was the architect of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and Rivett-Carnac was her very able lieutenant. “Put your money where it matters”, they say. “If you have a pension fund or savings, find out where your money is invested ... Write to [the] trustees and find out if they are divesting from the old economy ... Encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same”.

This is just one of many excellent and practical suggestions in their book, all of which make an effective counter to the next damaging mindset on my list: doomism. If you were to fall for the message in Gibbs and Moore’s film, you would assume that climate solutions are impossible, and all hope is therefore lost. Jonathan Franzen argued as much in a widely criticized op-ed in the New Yorker last year. There is a similarly damaging story kicking around, promulgated by the sustainability professor Jem Bendell, among others, that society’s collapse is now inevitable and we should thus be focusing our energies on preparing for the apocalypse.

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac show this message to be very far from true. They describe two alternative futures – the nightmare and the dream – and argue that we have a very real choice. Their dream future of 2050 is highly attractive, though not perfect – which is to say that it is also pragmatic. It is also rife with optimism, which they describe as not “soft” but “gritty”. Optimism, they argue, drives our “desire to engage, to contribute, to make a difference”. The Paris Agreement only happened because of this “contagious frame of mind”.

The third damaging mindset at the core of Planet of the Humans is exclusivism – the attitude of devoting all your attention to putting out the fire in one room while the rest of the house burns. Gibbs and Moore behave as if renewable power, electric vehicles and, to a smaller extent, biofuels are the only solutions to climate change. But these are only one aspect of the crisis. Making cement is the source of around 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions, and a large amount of this comes from process emissions that can’t be electrified away. Steel is another big emitter, as is the chemicals industry. Aviation, shipping, agriculture, land use and food waste are all big contributors; all need their own solutions. The good news is that they already exist. There are ways to curb waste, build a circular economy, change how we fertilize fields, suck carbon out of the chimney stacks of factories and bury it back in the geology it came from. We just need to roll up our gritty optimist sleeves, and mobilize business and finance in support.

Sometimes I can’t help wondering whether, at the heart of these three mindsets, there is a readiness to sacrifice the world so that the bad guys don’t get away with it. “Blame is already a powerful current in our relationship to climate change”, write Figueres and Rivett-Carnac. “But blame does not serve us.” What we need instead are bridge-builders – and the collective realization that we really are all in this together. “This is an everyone-everywhere mission”, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac continue, “in which we all must individually and collectively assume responsibility.” This, above all, should be the takeaway message for viewers of Planet of the Humans. Don’t listen to the purists, doomists or exclusivists. The battle against climate change can be won – and it will be won by all of us.


JULY 31, 2020