The Climate Card Challenge: An Experiment

Melton Fellow Eva Junge and the Climate Challenge cards she designed for a psychology experiment.

Getting people to act on what they know about climate change

By Eva Junge, Melton Fellow

They say global temperatures are rising. They say this will continue to endanger the planet’s environment, flora and fauna, as well as the very existence of the human species on this planet.

While the Earth is heating up, more information appears on the media, and scientists publish new studies which identify new causes and provide new insights. Strangely enough, it seems that the more information is available and the higher the time pressure to stop the damage, the more aloof of the matter people become.

For all its urgency, the potential of climate change to mobilize people has proven to be surprisingly weak. There is a great deal of people that seem to know but fail to act. Have you ever wondered why?

As a psychologist, I got very intrigued by this contradiction. Why do so many people ignore the facts, when they know this will ruin the foundations of our existence?

Psychology has a lot to say towards this question. And I wanted to use some of the insights that I gained from my studies in order to design a tool that would inspire people in a fun and creative way to behave a little more sustainably.

Eva talks to passersby during a visit to Hamburg, Germany.

After brainstorming with friends and “pre-testing” different ideas, I settled on pocket-sized playing cards that people can use to challenge their friends to change their behaviour. The cards had an attractive design and carried a certain challenge, such as “Carry the next shopping home in a backpack or a cloth bag.” Every person who completed a challenge successfully could write down her name on the card. This way, every card could be passed on from one person to the next and people were not only challenged but could challenge other people likewise.

Luckily, I got a lot of support for the project from friends and family. A group of friends spent long evenings with me discussing the idea and making suggestions for improvement. My mum’s husband designed the cards. And the Melton Foundation supported the whole project financially, from the very beginning to the final execution.

In my project, I chose to focus on plastic, because it is a material that for me is very emblematic for our fast, single-use, throwaway, consumerist society. Although every step in the plastic lifecycle — from extraction of the natural resources to processing it, transporting, manufacturing, consuming and disposal — is damaging to the environment, plastic has invaded almost every part of this world and is still expanding its reach.

Last year, I had the great opportunity to live in the rainforest of Peru for four months. The city of Iquitos is completely isolated, surrounded by trees and swampland; there are no roads leading to the city. Anything that is “imported” into the city has to travel up to a week on a boat along the Amazon. When I arrived, so much seemed different to what I was used to from my home country of Germany: food, artifacts, buildings, vehicles… but what was very familiar was the sight of plastic waste lying around in the streets, floating on the water and getting entangled everywhere. All this waste will outlive many future generations.

With this in mind, I got to work as soon as I got back home. I ordered 9,000 playing cards from a “sustainable” printing company, and tried to distribute them all over Germany. I traveled to various cities within the country and gave out the cards. I stood in pedestrian areas, on markets, in trains and festivals, I went to congresses, and I presented them at public events like theatres or concerts. It was a really exciting time. I met so many people, had endless discussions on the street and got an amazing insight into people’s reaction towards the issue.

Eva received feedback on her card game at the 2015 Environmental Psychology Congress.

So I could measure the impact of the project, I added an online survey link to the cards. Some interesting findings were, for example, that those challenges that were formulated in a collective way (i.e.: “we” vs. “I” have done this and that) were not only picked more often, but also resulted in stronger intentions to keep up the behaviour in the future. Also, the closer people felt to the person that had challenged them, the stronger were their intentions to keep up the behaviour. As expected, the hardest challenge was liked the least and had the lowest participation rates.

The challenges are not about criticizing or arguing about why the status quo is not good. They are about envisioning what a better future could look like.

Beyond the survey, the experiment gave me other insights as well. There is the tendency of the cards to guide conversations, to profoundly challenge habits of people and to engage people in a way that does not threaten their self-identity or self-esteem.

Another very useful feature is the fact that the challenges can be flexibly adapted to different contexts and issues. I expect that, especially in such a diverse group as the Melton Foundation, challenging each other to all sorts of different sustainable behaviour patterns can be useful and fun. We consider ourselves a tight-knit group, and we are open to try out new things and give up old unsustainable habits.

I still believe that the idea of such challenges has great potential to mobilize people. It is a playful tool that looks attractive and engages people more than dry facts and figures usually do — as important as such information might be to raise awareness in the first place.

I made amazing experiences with the cards and I can only encourage everybody to try it out for themselves. Think about something that keeps raising your attention, something that you would like to change. In order to put it into practice, you should have a tangible idea about what you want to achieve, that is, how you would like reality to look like. The challenges are not about criticizing or arguing about why the status quo is not good. They are about envisioning what a better future could look like. This could be anything, really. “Hold the door open for the person coming after you”. “Offer the first bite of your lunch to your company”. “Help somebody carry their bag up the stairs”. Let your imagination guide you!

It’s our time to make a change. We are free to envision how we want the world to look like in the future. And there are many ways to start acting. This is one of them.