Tom Bowman discusses the concepts behind his new book, What if Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple? and asks us to flip the picture of the climate crisis upside down and revaluate our roles in establishing the future we hope to see.
How does the climate crisis make you feel? Are you optimistic? Do you awaken each morning feeling excited to create a cleaner, healthier, and more humane world to live in? If you are like most people, the answer is probably “no,” and this result strikes me as quite odd.
The climate crisis is, after all, entirely of our own making. This means that the solutions are necessarily within our grasp. Despite this rather obvious point, a respected international survey finds that the overwhelming majority of people who live in industrialized countries believe they will not be better off in five years’ time. In the United States, where I live, roughly half of the population believes humanity could reduce global warming, yet only six percent think we will actually do so. Such beliefs reflect a profound sense of despair.
In the depths of a tragic global pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused, we also seem to be on the brink of climate catastrophe. I confess that the urgency of these compounding crises has a certain dramatic, even cinematic flair. This moment in history feels emotionally supercharged. Yet, for many people, the prevailing mood is downcast.
Feeling this way, however, is not the only option. As dire as descriptions of climate change may be, they present facts but not conclusions. The implications that we draw from those facts are merely interpretations. We are free to examine them and, if we find them wanting, we are free to change them. People change their minds all the time.
I wrote What if Solving the Climate Crisis Is Simple? because our beliefs about global warming are causing so much trouble. We can easily change them if we recognise the tendencies that lead us astray. People, for example, favour new information that supports what they already believe and devalue information that does not. People tend to pay more attention to the evidence that is right in front of their eyes instead of stepping back to take in a larger view. When we make decisions, we often lean heavily on short-term emotions. Once a decision has been made, we tend to believe that events will unfold according to our plan. This can make us overconfident and reluctant to seek new data or alter course. James Bond owes a great many lives to this particular quirk.
An art professor taught me how to overcome these limitations. I was struggling with a painting that was not working. Every solution I tried seemed to make it worse. My teacher came along and said, “Here’s what you do: hang the picture upside down and go home. The next time you see it, you will see what’s wrong.”
Hanging a picture upside down disrupts the assumptions that blind us to new possibilities. Given how dispirited most people feel about the climate crisis, perhaps we should try a mental experiment. Let’s hang our mental picture of the climate crisis upside down and see what we discover.
We have been taught that climate change involves a tangled web of complicated global systems: atmospheric chemistry and physics, food production and distribution, transportation that spans the globe, buildings and urban infrastructure, investment markets, supply chains, foreign policy and international aid, governance at every level, and so much more. It’s the proverbial Gordian knot: when you pull on one thread you inevitably pull on all the other threads too.
From this perspective, the climate crisis looks like a “wicked problem.” A wicked problem is one that is too complex to solve. It defies a convenient definition. The information you need is impossible to acquire. If you solve a piece that you can see, chances are you will create another problem that you could not see. There is no real solution. The best we can do is try very hard, manage as best we can, and prepare for the inevitable consequences of failure.
What could be more dispiriting? Yet, just about every documentary about the climate crisis admonishes the audience to somehow muster the willpower to challenge these impossible odds. I propose that this interpretation is undermining public confidence and holding humanity back. I suggest that we hang this mental picture upside down. When we do so, we discover just how simple the climate problem actually is.
Global warming stems mostly from just one cause, which is the combustion of fossil fuels. The solution, therefore, is simply to stop burning coal, oil and natural gas. Given the urgency of the crisis, we should stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and certainly well before mid-century. Given the risks involved, we absolutely do not want to fail. From this perspective, things look quite different. There is no need to devise an overall master plan before taking action. No such plan exists anyway. If it did, who would oversee it?
Instead, every action that reduces carbon pollution is part of the overall solution. Every person, organisation, and government can make valuable contributions. As we take productive steps, both individually and together, we can celebrate our achievements while knowing that constant innovation will present new opportunities to take additional steps over time. As we begin to recognise our successes— together — we create new social norms and a culture of climate action.
To be clear, this is not a call for everyone to adopt identical attitudes, values, or behaviours. People, businesses, communities, and nations live in different circumstances and have different needs. The goal is to meet those diverse needs in ways that reduce carbon pollution.
I put this strategy into practice in a small business that I once owned. Finding myself unable to develop a comprehensive master plan, I opted for an approach that we could manage. I told the staff that we would apply a new criterion to every business decision that we would be making anyway on a daily basis. We did not alter our business objectives; we simply added a co-top priority to addressing them. That new co-priority was to meet those business objectives in the most energy-efficient manner we could think of.
The big surprise is that when people embrace a challenge such as this, they hang their assumptions upside down, too, and discover new ways to solve persistent problems. For example, employees had commuted to our facility for years. During the business day, they might make a long drive to visit a supplier and then return before making the long commute home. When we looked at our carbon pollution problem differently, it dawned on us how unpleasant this was. All that driving wore people out and created pressure to work overtime to meet deadlines.
Perhaps I was a foolish business owner, but I think I was merely human. Like everyone else, I had grown too accustomed to this unpleasant and highly inefficient state of affairs. We made a simple change: we scheduled supplier visits early and late in the day so that people could make them on their way to or from work.
The outcome of our “make every decision a green decision” strategy was astonishing. The company reduced its carbon footprint by two-thirds in less than eighteen months. There was a small net cost savings as well. But the best results came from unexpected places. Our largest client called to thank us for reducing carbon pollution. She said her company was proud to be associated with a firm that would do so voluntarily. Employees, too, approached their work with a new sense of ownership in a mission that genuinely meant something to them. Laughter increased in the office.
There appears to be a deep wellspring of goodwill waiting for anyone who takes action to curb global warming. The value of empowering everyday people cannot be overstated. When we embrace the idea that the future is ours to co-create, our future no longer hangs on the myth that experts must first create a master plan. Instead, people are free to pursue opportunities that, in turn, will create new opportunities in the future. This creates a sense of momentum for a shared purpose. People stop feeling like helpless victims. They begin to feel empowered, they join a hopeful community, and they become more connected to the things they value most.
Governments have important roles to play, of course, but the solutions to the climate crisis truly rest in the hands of the people. Recognising this good news opens the door to inspiration and innovation. Despair is no longer required; it is, in fact, not even helpful.
When we hang our mental picture of the climate crisis upside down, we do not change atmospheric physics. Instead, we transform the way the climate crisis lives inside us. This simple move helps us see our lives in new, more fulfilling ways. It helps us realise that we can, in fact, create the future we have long hoped to see.
Tom Bowman is a strategic advisor and writing team lead for the U.S. action for climate empowerment strategic planning framework. He is founder of Bowman Design Group and founder/president of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy that works on communication strategies with government agencies, businesses, and cultural institutions.