What Can We Do?: Interview with Tom Bowman

What Can We Do?: Interview with Tom Bowman

We can’t depend on anyone else to do it for us. That’s the conclusion of climate science communications expert Tom Bowman after years of witnessing American society not respond effectively to the urgency of climate change. The founder of Bowman Global Change says that the fundamental question posed by the blog he launched last week is “what can we do beyond the boundaries of our job to be effective?”

To Bowman, whose blog will feature podcasts with long-form interviews, this includes people assessing what talents and resources they have as well as what they think their limitations are dependent on. He also sees it as a chance to bring practical ways to talk about a range of issues in a multidisciplinary way; he wants to help people find productive ways of confronting the climate question, such as how to vote, make consumer choices or manage business appropriately.

He is also calling on the religious, psychological and arts communities to start coming to grips with how threatening climate change is to our view of how world works and our place in world.

“We believe that nature is trustworthy, and then all of sudden nature is not trustworthy—and we did it to ourselves. We have a deep belief in progress that we are headed toward a better place, a more ideal future; we have a sense as Americans that resources are endless. We lead lives that are insulated from nature. That we could be in situation with not enough food, water and real estate is very jarring,” he explains.

Much of Bowman’s work has been on the science community because “very few people who start in science get training in how communications really work.” He has advocated for better communication between climate scientists and policy makers, led the push for the same unit and baseline be used to describe changes in temperature, and has helped interpreters at public museums strengthen their communication skills, including informing them who their audiences really are and how people process information when they’re “overcommunicated.”

Bowman, who is also a Climate Access advisory board member, explains the neurological process of how humans simplify information. In the same way that when we drive a car or walk down a set of stairs we only pay attention to the things that matter, when we hear new information we tend to compartmentalize and link it to values and impressions we already have stored. We tend to defer to preexisting beliefs, those whom we trust to be informants and to our sense of how others perceive us. In our overcommunicated society, we are able to look at what supports our point of view and don’t have to look at what doesn’t; he says that this makes us more comfortable, and helps deal with the onslaught of information. Bowman explains that this is what makes branding so powerful in marketing.

“It’s not about describing the technology or the feature benefits, it’s about describing the identity. That’s because it’s easy to default to one’s values, something that happens mostly unconsciously,” he says.

With climate change, according to Bowman, the problem is that no what matter frame has been tried, the overall brand has been one about government intervention. He is hopeful that this can change, as the climate challenge presents an opportunity for (to quote his recent blog on the issue) “collaboration, ingenuity, and our innate desire to control our destiny.” He says that a new brand proposition is emerging that is able to combine parenthood, common sense, personal responsibility, and the American Dream.

Some of this is coming from a target audience of Bowman’s blog: the small business community. He explains that because small business owners don’t answer to shareholders, they tend to manage to their values and quite often invest in things that they care about and thus can be “rapid first responders to climate change.” Some of them are developing a new combination of brand values around climate change that include innovation, economic competitiveness and more livable communities, and promoting innovation. Bowman is leading workshops to bring together small business owners on how to engage their peers, share resources and ultimately feel part of something bigger. He says that this is not about political advocacy, but a way to get more involved.

Bowman is always on the cutting edge of climate communications, so we encourage you to glean the wisdom in his new blog.