Can virtual reality solve climate change?

Clovis McEvoy
December 3, 2023
“Your brain processes the digital environment as if it were real” — Anna Quieroz, Stanford University

Researchers are increasingly looking to virtual reality to explain the climate crisis in new, impactful ways. From ecotourism to education to direct action, Clovis McEvoy explores how VR is cutting through the noise to communicate the planet’s greatest issue.

The paradox of all major, global issues is that what makes them global is what makes them hard to grasp. The sheer scale of climate change can be overwhelming, the data points hard to fathom, and the news headlines more paralysing than anything else. For humanity to meet this singular challenge, we need to understand the stakes on both an intellectual level, but also an emotional one, and we need to turn that understanding into action.

Extended reality may be uniquely suited to the challenge.

Anna Carolina Queiroz is a researcher at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. The institute has spent years studying virtual reality’s ability to serve as an educational tool and, specifically, whether it can explain the climate crisis in ways that motivate people to actually take action. The results, Anna says, are encouraging.

“Our research has revealed that after experiencing environmental events in VR, individuals perceive the risks of climate change as higher and engage in more pro-environmental behaviours,” she explains. “This suggests that VR can not only increase climate change awareness, but can also encourage behaviours supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation.”

“Your brain processes the digital environment as if it were real.”

— Anna Quieroz, Stanford University

That virtual reality can spur real-world action should not come as a surprise. Recent years have seen significant advances in the technology, with high definition displays, spatial audio, and room-scale motion tracking now standard features on many consumer grade headsets.

Together, those immersive qualities enable simulations sophisticated enough to fool our brains at the most foundational level. “After spending even minutes in VR,” Anna says, “your brain processes the digital environment as if it were real, triggering physiological responses as if you were physically present in that virtual environment.”

That sense of embodiment – of feeling and acting as if you are ‘really there’ – is the secret sauce behind virtual reality’s most promising applications. When it comes to climate change, the tech opens up a fascinating set of possibilities.

Consider ecotourism tourism, expected to become a $400 billion industry by 2028. There is a widespread desire to visit at-risk habitats in a sustainable manner – not only with the goal of sightseeing locations which could disappear in the coming decades, but for the purpose of conservation and education as well.

Yet, in truth, only a slim minority will ever be able to experience these environments in person.  Instead, immersive virtual experiences such as the BBC’s Earth: Life in VR, and Gondwana VR offer an accessible way for people to form emotional connections with our planet’s most beautiful ecosystems. Those virtual connections can even be good for our own health.

A view from the seafloor in the BBC Earth: Life in VR experience, produced by the BBC and Google back in 2018.

Of course, the capacity to simulate nature is really only the beginning. Virtual reality is entirely malleable, offering an unparalleled ability to shift scale and perspective. From the macro concerns of weather systems to the minutiae of habitat destruction, it can make the often hidden impacts of climate change extraordinarily clear.

The team at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab make full use of these capabilities in their research. “We have a VR experience showcasing the human impacts on the ocean, and how ocean biodiversity will be affected if carbon emissions continue at the current rate.”

Their ‘Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience’ visualises the process by which carbon molecules are absorbed into the world’s oceans. This absorption subsequently impacts the chemistry of seawater, with knock-on effects for a variety of marine life. Released in 2016, participants begin with a close up view of this usually invisible process, before being placed in the role of a scientist tasked with measuring its impact on a simulated coral reef.

Anna and her fellow researchers have used the experience in studies across the US, UK, Canada, and Denmark. “We found that participants not only increased their knowledge about climate-related processes but also heightened their concern about the ocean's health.”

We need not limit ourselves to embodying climate scientists. Virtual reality makes it possible to experience life through the eyes of endangered animals, or even to take the form of a tree in a rainforest. In turn, research shows that these experiences can elicit genuine feelings of compassion, empathy, and self-reflection.

“Participants heightened their concern about the ocean's health.”

— Anna Quieroz, Stanford University

That capacity for embodiment and interaction is what separates a technology like VR from other immersive mediums – such as the much discussed Las Vegas Sphere. Boasting a 16K resolution LED screen, a 270-degree field of view, and 167,000 loudspeakers, the next-gen arena offers all-encompassing audio-visual spectacles. Most recently, it hosted regular screenings of Oscar-nominated director Daron Aronofsky’s environmentally-focused film, Postcards from Earth.

By all accounts, it's an undeniably awe-inspiring experience. Crucially, it overcomes one of virtual reality’s key limitations: one person, one headset. VR suffers from a severe bottleneck when it comes to shared experiences, and the isolation of wearing a headset is something that Apple tried to tackle with the EyeSight feature on the Vision Pro.

But while the Sphere offers immersion on a mass scale, it sacrifices the most powerful emotion that virtual reality can bring: the feeling of active agency.

Virtual environments that include bodily movement and interaction have been shown to increase a user’s sense of self-efficacy. The best virtual reality experiences leave people feeling empowered, confident in their own ability to effect change. This is what it takes to motivate people to support a cause as broad as climate action.

Wearing a VR headset, a researcher tries out the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, with a coral reef in the background. (Credit: Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab)

Of course, for VR to have a real impact on the climate movement, it needs to reach mass adoption whilst retaining those all-important feelings of agency and empowerment. One path to get there lies in schools.

“I like to compare the current state of extended reality in education to computers in the 1990s,” Anna says. “After learning about what worked and what didn’t, coupled with technological evolution and affordability, schools systematically integrated computers into the curriculum. I foresee a similar path for XR in the next few years.”

Currently, Anna’s lab is working with Californian secondary schools to explore just how that integration might unfold. With virtual scenarios that explore a plethora of social and global issues, Anna says the pilot programme aims to better understand the social, cognitive, and emotional impact of XR in the classroom.

There are still many barriers to the mass adoption of XR technology. Most people are still wholly unfamiliar with XR hardware, and, though costs have plummeted, they have not plummeted enough to make a headset generally affordable. Perhaps more importantly, content development for XR is still weighted primarily toward gaming and entertainment – with educational, artistic, social, or environmental experiences a distinct minority.

We cannot tackle climate change with a permanently distracted populace.

But the power and accessibility of these systems will only increase, with major hardware investments from tech juggernauts like Apple and Meta. The latter’s Quest 2 headset, its second-latest model, recently retailed for $200.

We live in a world where our information channels are flooded with content, and even the most existential issues struggle to hold people’s attention. Yet, an engaged and activated public is a necessary driver of government policy, of business priorities, and of global cooperation. We cannot tackle climate change with a permanently distracted populace.

Virtual reality experiences may be simulated, but our emotional and physical reactions to them are very real. They present a huge opportunity for researchers, storytellers, and activists to communicate their message through a language of active experience, rather than passive observation.

Jane Goodall, the famous researcher and conservationist, once said: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Virtual reality has a role to play in this process — its true potential is only just coming into view.

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.