Climate Papa: Tom Smerling

We are thrilled to introduce you to Climate Papa, Tom Smerling.

Photo Credit: Tom Smerling

Tom’s life travels, from mid-east politics to “climate reality truth teller,” give him a unique insight and way of looking at and coming up with interesting perspectives and ideas on seemingly “intractable” problems like climate change. At ClimateMama, we LOVE how Tom is able to add humor, and heart warming and sometimes bizarre tales to the climate change saga; helping us get our arms around a challenge that often seems too big to grasp. Tom sees hopeful signs and shares advice with us on ways we can approach the uncertain future we are facing from climate change. So take a moment and join us now, as we get to know Tom Smerling a little better!

Current project/position/adventure: Founder of, an online toolkit for climate communications. ClimateBites collects the best climate metaphors, soundbites, humor, stories, and graphics, to help breath life into presentations and make the climate message stick.

Parent: Raising two delightful and very challenging teenagers, Ami (17) and Talia (14).

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, the steps you took, life events, decisions you made, that helped you arrive at where you are at today?

I grew up in Minnesota, across from a lake. My mother was always shooing my sister and I outside; she believed that “fresh air and exercise” could cure anything. Though we considered this a bit nutty, I ended up spending a lot of time on, in or near the water and learned to love the outdoors. During college, I became intrigued by international relations, and after moving to Washington worked for many years on Middle East policy. In mid-life, I returned to my Minnesota roots, and went to the U. of Maryland for an MS in Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development, focusing on aquatic ecosystems. While in graduate school, I was asked to prepare a report for US Fish & Wildlife on the impact of sea level rise on the National Refuge System. That awakened me to the enormous threat posed by climate change. During a fellowship, and later a staff position, at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, I saw how climate change was impacting everything. I also discovered the enormous communications challenge we faced. When I began speaking to community groups, I found it difficult to find scripts and graphics suitable for general audiences. Most of the scientific stuff was just too dense, too jargon-filled, and too boring. That led to the creation of ClimateBites, as a resource for climate communicators.

What inspires you to keep going, to keep fighting this challenging battle against climate change?

Like so many, it’s first and foremost for my kids, and their kids. We try to prepare them for the future in every way, but meanwhile we’re trashing the world they will inherit. One climatologist put it like this, “Don’t leave our children a problem they can’t solve.” Also, I enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to figure out how to “tell the climate story” in ways that different audiences can hear and remember. And it’s fun learning to be a better storyteller.

What are the three greatest challenges and/or opportunities you feel the world faces with climate change?

The biggest challenge is, obviously, overcoming denial. We all tend to deny discomforting truths, especially those that may require us to change our habits, and we will grasp at any hint the may “let us off the hook.” A few years ago, a friend measured my blood pressure and found it a bit high. I didn’t want to hear about it; I was too young. So I dismissed it as a fluke, and forgot about it. A few years later, I finally faced the reality and radically changed my diet and exercise. I felt much better in every way. It’s a little like that with the climate/energy crisis. If we face the truth and act accordingly, we can usher in a better world for our kids.

One of my favorite cartoons (Inconvenient Truth vs. Reassuring Lie) makes this point well. The second challenge is overcoming ideological resistance among conservatives to accepting the reality of any problem that appears to requires collective – i.e. government – action. It’s a little like “If my only tool is a hammer (i.e. free markets), than problems that don’t look like nails cannot possibly exist.” The greatest opportunity is that we already have the technology to make a big difference. It’s out there. The lowest-hanging fruit is simply cutting the waste. Waste is an opportunity for relatively easy savings. Some call the U.S. “the Saudia Arabia of energy waste.” Let’s start with plugging the leaks and holes in order to, in Richard Alley’s words, “get more of what we pay for.” What’s the sense of burning 25 incandescent bulbs – which are like little space heaters – when the air conditioning is running?

Scientific predictions seem to be pointing to more frequent extreme weather scenarios, a shorter time frame for a warmer planet and all of the negative ramifications that this will bring. Yet here in the US, we still seem to be debating the “reality of climate change.” What will it take for us to “wake up” and do our part to avert these consequences?

I actually think that, in public awareness, we’re slowly recovering from the big backlash in 2008 and 2009. And we’ve learned a lot about how to communicate more effectively. The question is, can we turn things around quickly enough to avoid the more dire impacts?

Do you see any hopeful signs that people are waking up to the dangers of climate change?

There are many hopeful signs, almost everywhere except in Congress. At the local level, among businesses and in the military people are moving toward clean energy.

What advice would you give to other Climate Mama’s and Papa’s, steps they can take both as individuals and collectively to help change the course we currently find ourselves on with climate change.

Become politically active. Individual conservation makes us feel better and helps us save money, and it is a great way to start a conversation with friends and neighbors. But this problem can’t be solved with out changes in national and international policy.

Other thoughts or ideas that you would like to pass on to our community?

I’m particularly interested in stories about how people change – anecdotes about skeptics who “came around” to accept climate science, and what led them there. What works? Brian Ettling’s guest post is an example.

Contact information, website, or related story you would like us to link to this article?

I can be reached directly at

Favorite book or movie?

Favorite movie: Annie Hall, with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Favorite book: Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath. In a previous life, Pursuit of Loneliness, by Phillip Slater.

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2 Responses to Climate Papa: Tom Smerling

  1. Thanks for a great interview! I have seen exactly what Mr. Smerling talks about — constructive change at the local level, along with businesses and even the military. It’s the Congress that seems to be asleep at the wheel. Thanks for a reminder to act BOTH locally and nationally!

    • Harriet says:

      Agreed Desiree..Tom does a great job of helping us see where we can work together for positive change..Your comments about Congress are so true..they need to hear from us loudly, that we won’t put up with their tactics and we are moving forward,’s too important not too

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