The wheel of first-time climate dudes

Or, alternatively: Why I don't want to review Michael Moore's climate change documentary.

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(Michael Moore on November 7, 2019, in New York City. Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Over the last few days, many readers have asked me to watch and review Michael Moore’s new climate change documentary, “Planet of the Humans.”

The documentary—released for free on YouTube for Earth Day—makes some controversial arguments. They include:

  • Renewable energy is a sham;

  • Environmentalists have been duped by the fossil fuel industry into thinking it can work;

  • The only way to save humanity now is through consumption reduction and population control.

“We are not going to be able to solar panel and windmill our way out of this,” said Moore, the film’s executive director, in a Tuesday interview with Stephen Colbert, whose show averages 3.1 million viewers a night.


Just to be clear, this isn’t a review of the movie, because I have not watched the movie. I will probably watch it, because the Guardian gave it four out of five stars—and I am interested in exploring this theme:

Big Oil and its corporate and banking representatives have, according to this film, found a way to rebrand themselves as green or greenish, to use the green movement for their own ends, and to get their mitts on the huge subsidies that taxpayers around the world are handing over to anyone claiming to be developing renewable energy resources, which turn out to be the same old fossil-fuel entities in different packaging.

But I don’t know if I’m going to review Michael Moore’s new documentary. I mean, who’s to say what will happen. But right now, I really don’t want to.

It’s not because the movie criticizes the environmental movement. Y’all know I love criticizing the environmental movement. It’s also not because the movie contains arguments I don’t agree with. Entertaining good-faith arguments about how to stop climate change is my job, and I have no reason at present to believe Moore and director Jeffrey Gibbs argued in bad faith.

Really, the reason I don’t want to review this movie is because I’m tired of having to spend hours consuming and debunking messy-yet-blockbuster climate reporting from dudes who seemingly woke up a few mornings beforehand and decided they were climate journalists.

I feel like a hamster on a wheel: The Wheel of First Time Climate Dudes.

What is the Wheel of First Time Climate Dudes?

The wheel starts to spin when a dude who spent his entire career doing everything except climate journalism decides he’s going to be the one to do a Big Climate Journalism Moment. This moment can be an interview with a famous person, a huge piece in a fancy publication, or a documentary film executive produced by Michael Moore.

Because of the bigness of said moment, it is consumed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But because neither the author nor editor has not done much climate journalism before, however, the viral moment suffers from factual inaccuracies and misleading tropes.

That’s understandable. Climate change is a very difficult subject to cover—due in large part to the sophisticated 40-year disinformation campaign around the subject, perpetuated and funded by the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry and its powerful political allies.

But that doesn’t change the fact that harmful inaccuracies have been consumed by many people. The wheel comes full circle when climate journalists have to spend massive amounts of time and intellectual energy consuming and debunking the First Time Climate Dudes’ story.

Is it really dudes, though?

A caveat before everyone yells at me: Most big-moment climate journalism—particularly print and digital—is very good. And most of it is done by people of all genders who have lots of experience covering climate change.

But when a big glitzy climate journalism project does contain problems, oftentimes a male person was behind it. That’s simply a product of who gets to do big projects in this industry.

As the Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg famously said, “The journalists in America who do [longform] are almost exclusively white males.” But that’s only because they’re the ones being gifted with the opportunity. I remember when I was working at The New Republic, I pitched a climate story for the print magazine. The editor at the time liked it—but instead of assigning it the female climate staff writer (me), he assigned it to a male freelancer with little history of covering climate change. I only found out when the physical magazine hit my desk months later, with the story I had pitched on the cover, written by someone else.

The story did terribly; basically no one read it. But that’s better than the alternative, which is that everyone reads it, and it contains a glaring factual error or misconception.

For example, Nathaniel Rich was primarily a novelist and essayist before he was given a whole issue of the New York Times Magazine to write the 30,000-word “Losing Earth.” It was a good piece of journalism in many ways, in part because Rich is a great writer. But the story’s main takeaway was that the climate crisis is the fault of human nature. That’s a harmful and inaccurate message. So nearly every climate journalist in existence had to write a criticism of that piece after it came out, this reporter included.

Climate journalists also spent countless hours criticizing climate questions asked during the Democratic presidential debates this cycle. Over the course of 11 debates, 83 climate questions were asked—and only one was asked by a climate journalist. The most-criticized questions came from NBC’s Chuck Todd, who regularly emphasized the high cost of climate action without mentioning the catastrophic costs of inaction. He also confused mitigation with adaptation.

And now there’s this huge deal Michael Moore documentary, directed by Jeffrey Gibbs, who’s a “longtime environmentalist.”* That ain’t nothin’, but it also ain’t climate journalism. And that matters, because that’s how this documentary is going to be seen by thousands, if not millions of people. It’s Michael Moore. It’s going to be seen as credible.

Hopefully it doesn’t need debunking at all! But if the initial response is any indication, it probably will. Self-described eco-modernist Mike Shellenberger, former co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, is already using the film to claim that renewables are “worse for the environment than fossil fuels.” [Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly said Shellenberger was still with Breakthrough. He’s not, and the folks at Breakthrough have publicly disavowed Shellenberger’s position on renewables. HEATED regrets the error.]

And tobacco and coal’s literal love child Steve Milloy is tweeting clips from it, too, to attack environmentalists:

On climate in particular, expertise matters

Look—I’m not saying you can’t do climate journalism if you’re not a longtime climate journalist. That’s like saying you can’t work in retail unless you have retail experience. Makes no sense.

But there’s a reason people start out in stock boy positions before becoming director of floor design. It’s so others don’t have to clean up after an inexperienced person’s mess.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. In climate journalism, the stakes are extremely high. The purpose of this job is to chronicle and explain the rapid escalation of an existential threat to human life so that humans have the tools they need to address the threat. We only have so many opportunities to get it right before everything goes horribly wrong.

I’m extremely tired, and frankly terrified, of how often we grant expert status to people who are not experts on the greatest existential threats we face as a species. We see it with climate change just as often as we see it with coronavirus. It’s all such a waste of extremely precious time.

Who knows, though. Maybe when I watch this movie, I’ll really like it. Maybe I’ll write a glowing freakin’ review.

For now, though, I just wish the world was forcing me to write a review of something different. I wish I knew that thing would be worth our time. And I wish we had enough time so I wouldn’t have to care.

*Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly linked to a different Jeffrey Gibbs’ resume.

Something I know is worth your time: DeSmog’s huge series on climate and COVID-19 deniers

Brendan DeMelle may be a dude, but his latest project—which exposes the links between climate denial and coronavirus denial—is not the first time he’s dabbled in climate journalism.

“My career in climate science denial is old enough to drink,” he told me on the phone yesterday.

DeMelle is the executive director of DeSmog, a news site that’s been covering climate disinformation since before I knew climate change existed. And over the last several weeks, he and a team of reporters have put together an enormous project documenting the extensive overlap between the fossil fuel-funded climate disinformation machine and the coronavirus disinformation machine.

Here’s part of the executive summary :

The climate science denial machine created by the fossil fuel industry is now a major source of COVID-19 disinformation. Deniers have deployed many of the same tactics they have used to attack climate scientists and delay action to downplay the severity of the coronavirus outbreak and sow distrust in the response efforts of governments, scientists and the medical community — with deadly consequences that are now unfolding before our eyes. 

Others have used the threat of COVID-19 to argue against action to address climate change, which would leave us all more vulnerable to the wide array of future catastrophes that scientists say will result from additional degrees of warming.

In the following series, DeSmog presents the #COVIDenial evidence our team has gathered revealing the overlapping cast of characters who have long attacked climate science and are now spreading COVID misinformation, touting false cures, ginning up conspiracy theories and fomenting attacks on public health experts.

I asked DeMelle: Why track what climate deniers are saying during a pandemic? Why give their claims more room to breathe?

For one, he said, it’s so people realize the dangerous idiocy of these people on both crises. “Seeing the early responses to coronavirus—it was like all of a sudden the climate deniers we’ve tracked for 14 years at DeSmog are overnight pandemic experts, trying to claim credibility and expertise in areas where they don’t have it,” he said.

The biggest reason to track the overlaps, however, is simple exposure—so there’s always a record of what these people said, when they said it, that will exist in perpetuity.

“My motivation has always been that I don’t like liars, and I don’t like bullies,” DeMelle said. “And climate denial is a feast for both—those who enjoy confusing and distorting reality, and those who love bullying people, especially scientists. It’s just gross, and it motivates me to fight them and expose them and put them on record.”

“I’d like them to be seen forever to have been on the wrong side of history.”

Check out the series HERE.

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