Review – Thom Brooks – How Not to Save the Planet

The second talk for the Skeptics on the Fringe, 2013 was given by Dr. Thom Brooks of Durham Law School, whose current research is in the areas of ethics, law, and public policy. Dr. Brooks spoke to us about the impending hazard of anthropogenic climate change and the proposed actions that human civilization might take in response to it… and why those solutions probably would not be as effective as we would hope.

Dr. Brooks covered two main schools of thought on how we ought to respond to climate change — conservation and adaptation — illustrating the general principle of each and then summarily tearing it apart by pointing out why it probably would not work as we hope. Two main approaches to conservation were covered: the first was to limit the human consumption of resources to within a certain “environmental footprint” (popularly called a “carbon footprint”); the second was to adopt the principle that “the polluter pays”. As appealing as these approaches may sound at first, Dr. Brooks argued that making us all live within a limited means may actually lead to greater problems of global inequality and that taxing polluters would not phase them as long as they can afford to pay the tax. As for adaptation, while it is certainly appealing to the scientifically minded, models for predicting the future cannot necessarily be relied up; moreover, Dr. Brooks reminded us that, while we have become more energy efficient, we are also simply using more energy.

Ultimately, Dr. Brooks expressed a lack of confidence in any of these “end state” solutions, giving the general message that climate change and the issues surrounding it are more complicated than we would like to believe, and the solutions will not be as simple as we would hope. The problems he illustrated with current proposals were things that some of us may not have previously considered, which made his talk both interesting and insightful. It was followed by a lively (albeit brief) Q&A session, in which at least one audience member did challenge Dr. Brooks’ assertion that, as our technology becomes more energy efficient, we will continue to use more energy, suggesting instead that there will come a point where our consumption of energy plateaus (specifically, it was suggested that, no matter how good home insulation gets, one would simply not have their house constantly at 33 degrees), and Dr. Brooks acknowledged this.

Generally speaking, the talk was well received, although the use of slideshow software (consisting purely of slides of text, basically spelling out what Dr. Brooks was saying) struck some as superfluous, too close to a university lecture format, and a little distracting from the actual speaker. Nevertheless, a fairly average presentation did not ultimately detract too much from what was a good, informative discussion of this extremely timely and pressing issue.