Understanding Climate Change Through Virtual Reality

deforestation on mountain

"The issues of climate change are huge. Not only are they huge, but they are complex," explains Mildred McClain, Ed.D., of Citizens for Environmental Justice in the upcoming SCETV documentary, Sea Change.

"We have to localize it because if you keep it in its comprehensive, big framework, folks will be overwhelmed and feel as though, 'I can't do anything about that.' But everybody can do something about reducing the carbon footprint, and preparing people to deal with the reality of climate change, which is already with us."

Scientists and academics are currently tackling this very issue and "localizing" the impacts of global warming using innovation and technology. Virtual Realty (VR) is a recent phenomenon that allows a user to immerse themselves in a digital experience, in a way that mimics reality. Often a user will wear a headset that then allows them to move within and view another space. From the comfort of your home, you can explore the Great Barrier Reef, or walk along a bluff in Scotland. Several universities have funded projects and hope to use VR to help people better understand nature and "give people empathetic insight into environmental challenges." Learn more in this article from Yale. 

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) created a VR Game and short VR documentary that seeks to explain the issue of ocean acidification, which is the process by which excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, which increases the acidity and makes it less viable for ocean life. Like McLain in the quote above, Bailenson believes the greatest challenge in combating climate change is getting people to visualize how their behavior and choices affect the environment. The VHIL partnered with producer Cody Karutz to create The Crystal Reef, which takes a further look at ocean acidification and the toll that human-produced carbon dioxide is taking on coral reefs. Half of the world's reefs have died in the last 30 years.

Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, New York-based VR directors and creative technologists from New Reality, created Tree, an eight-minute film that allows users to "experience life as a kapok tree from the moment it pierces through the earth to its death in a slash-and-burn farming operation" says VICE Impact. Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change, degrading forests and creating 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Many products that consumers buy daily like bananas, coffee and palm oil come from countries where the harvesting of these products is causing mass deforestation.

More recently, the country Fiji chose to use 360-degree VR as a part of its presentation in support of stronger action against climate change at the COP23 Climate Change Summit. The documentary Our Home, Our Peopleproduced by the World Bank, takes users to parts of Fiji to experience the stories of four people who have been drastically changed by climate change, including last year's devastating Category Five Tropical Cyclone Winston. One story shows the relocation efforts of the coastal community of Vunisavisavi, due to impacts of rising sea levels. Our Home, Our People is launching alongside the Fijian government's "Climate Vulnerability Assessment 2017," which reports on the climate impacts already felt by Fiji, and possible strategies and costs to make the country more climate resilient.

There is research that has proven these efforts are effective. Dan Archer is a New York-based comic and the VR producer of Life in Gawair, a VR documentary that shows how climate change affects people. The documentary takes you through a settlement outside of Dhaka, where many former Bangladesh have relocated, due to natural disasters like floods. Archer told Vice Impact that in his research as a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, he found a correlation between the level of immersion and an individual's empathy. Five weeks after their VR session, the Center contacted participants and found most of them had taken action, in some way.

Bailenson and his team at VHIL are currently running a project called "Empathy at Scale" that explores ways to design, test and distribute VR projects that teach empathy. VR allows a genuine connection to places and people who previously felt far away or out of reach, and it is becoming a useful tool to provide perspective in issues related to climate change.

SCETV's documentary Sea Change premieres Nov. 15 at 7:00 p.m. Narrator Patrick McMillan takes viewers from the sands of Hunting Island State Park to other communities along the coast, looking at immediate and long-term impacts and the efforts made to withstand nature’s onslaught.