Are zombies to blame for climate change?

75% believe that climate change is a problem, but most fail to do much about it.

When it comes to climate change, are we all zombies, asks Helen Cross.

There is growing evidence pointing to the very real existence of climate change, and numerous studies demonstrating both the need for, and benefits of, sustainability. So why are so many of us paralysed when it comes to sustainability measures?

Even worse, why are studies now showing that environmental concern is waning? Why are we unwilling to even sacrifice plane for train or turn off a light when we exit a room? When it comes to climate change, are we all zombies?

Now obviously, when speaking of zombies, we don’t mean brain-hungry mutants in the typical sense. Rather aimless and fixated, wandering forward on a fixed trajectory, illogical with no care for anything but themselves.

It’s no secret that, as a whole, human beings do not like change. As a survival instinct we tend to fear the unknown, and nothing is more unknown than change. However, when it comes to tackling climate change, this is exactly what we need: we need to alter work and leisure practices to reduce carbon impact, we need to seriously question our culturally ingrained approach to energy and consumption and we need to look at the sustainability of every part of life. Whether we like it or not, making moves towards a greener future must include change.

Interestingly, a study has shown that those who have experienced a natural disaster are more risk averse than otherwise. This could lead to a disturbing trend: lack of conclusive proof of climate change, more natural disasters, more risk aversion, less willingness to change, to risk the status quo, to reduce climate change.  

Over the last 10 years, worldwide losses from natural disasters in the developing world cost around 35 billion USD a year. Add to this losses in the developed world from Hurricane Sandy, and even freak snowstorms, and you have a recipe for climate change paralysis.

Over 75% of people in the UK and this US believe that climate change is a problem, and yet so few of us make even small efforts towards being green. The American Psychological Association investigated key barriers to action when it comes to climate change. According to the report the key barriers were:

  • Uncertainty due to doubts over the reality of climate change
  • Mistrust of scientists and government officials
  • Social comparison, e.g. looking at what other people are doing. For example ‘Al Gore still flies around the world despite being a climate change advocate, therefore it’s ok for me to fly to New York on business every month’.
  • Undervaluing risks by thinking changes can be made at some point in the future
  • Lack of control – people think their actions are too small to make a change
  • Perceived behavioural control – many people believe they can do nothing to help a global problem
  • Habit – deeply entrenched habits are very hard to change

So what can we do about this, seemingly hopeless, situation? Awareness is the first step: accepting that we are afraid of change, and that we lack confidence. Working from that standpoint perhaps we can look at ways to assuage doubts and spur motivation.

Another option would be looking at what the benefits of acting for climate change and sustainability are, therefore moving from a reactive to a proactive stance. There have been a large number of studies that have illustrated financial and motivational business benefits from sustainability focussed endeavours, showing that these measures have value quite apart from averting possible climate change.

Recently a high profile study found that 37% of companies had seen a profit from sustainability efforts whilst other studies have found that environmental measures lead to reduced overheads and improved employee engagement.

If we take the zombie analogy further, surely today’s business leaders lust after money in place of brains. Therefore, with improved education and awareness of the benefits of sustainable business, perhaps zombification isn’t so incompatible with sustainability after all.