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My name is Indiana Lee writing to you from the Pacific North West.. I have been a professional writer for almost a decade and you can find a small sample of my work on my...

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VR and Its Impact on Sustainability

image credit: Image found on Pixbay: https://pixabay.com/photos/clouds-virtual-reality-game-ar-1845517/

The impacts of climate change, though very real, are exceedingly hard to imagine. Climatologists say the icebergs will melt, the weather will hit extremes, and cities will be arid concrete jungles—these are scary probabilities, so why isn’t more being done to mitigate this future? One answer may be that individuals simply cannot visualize how the effects of climate change will impact their lifestyle. Few people have experienced the magnitude of an actual iceberg to understand what it means for it to melt away. 

While some environmental advocates, governments, and scientists are doing their best to shed light on the urgency of the issue, there are a substantial amount of people across the globe who still do not grasp the severity of climate change. A 2019 study by Pew Research Center shows that “a median of 20% of people across countries (surveyed) consider global warming a minor threat, while 9% say it is not a threat.” So how do we change this? Step in, Virtual Reality. 

Using VR for the Climate Change Cause 

Virtual reality (VR) refers to a simulated environment created by software that uses sight and sound to produce a seemingly physical or real experience of that environment for users. There are a number of reasons VR is a promising option for helping scientists advocate the need for climate action, the primary one being how it can create an immersive, almost physical experience. 

One of the most notable demonstrations of this is Stanford University’s Ocean Acidification Experience (SOAE). As described in an article on Forbes, the SOAE project portrays the effect of climate change on marine ecosystems by letting the user choose to be a diver or a pink coral living in an underwater reef. Over a specific period (quickened through time-lapse), the user begins to see sea creatures around them dying because of ocean acidification. This goes on until the reef is left almost barren. While the experience itself is astonishing, the results are even more staggering. Studies showed that those who participated in the simulation retained information about ocean acidification more than three weeks after the experience, and their test scores on the topic increased by more than 100%. The most noteworthy finding though was perhaps how VR increased participants’ knowledge and empathy, with the Stanford study noting that “participants who explored more of the virtual space formed deeper cognitive associations with the science content.” 

In fact, other studies also show that VR can change one’s attitude towards the environment, thus promoting positive climate action. This is one of virtual reality’s many capabilities that can promote climate adaptation and mitigation. Consider the case of Turner Station, an African-American community southeast of Baltimore. As sea levels rise, the town is facing increased flooding. Due to this, residents were directed to virtually watch their home’s flood and experience the impacts of climate change at a community meeting, so as to better understand the situation and prepare for it. To quote Jackie Specht, the coastal science program manager for The Nature Conservancy's Maryland/DC Chapter, “If it's hard to imagine, it's hard to face and prioritize, especially when there are so many tangible issues that [people are] facing in the day-to-day.” In this way, awareness-building experiences through VR can help garner community support for climate resilience projects.

Bringing Climate Change Home

Bringing these experiences to consumers is no longer out of reach with companies now creating more approachable and affordable VR products that use headsets and smartphones alone to transport users to new virtual worlds. Innovations like these show that VR can be accessible to the masses. Expanding libraries of virtual experiences and games, coupled with portability and ease of use mean scientists can finally educate and demonstrate the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis to a captive audience in the comfort of their homes. 

Scientists can now use the technology’s engaging features to demonstrate how the growing danger of climate change will affect not just the world at large but the actual lifestyles of individuals. This could range from showing individuals what climate change means for their residential expenses, including altered heating and cooling expenses, to longer-term implications like experiencing heatwaves in cooler regions and tropical storms in coastal regions. “This is Climate Change” is one such experience by Participant Media and Condition One, which takes participants through a four-part virtual docu-series that fully immerses them in four jarring impacts of climate change: Famine, Feast, Melting Ice and Fire. 

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Virtual Reality’s ability to immerse and engage users can be used to finally get people to be proactive about climate change. Projects like SOAE or climate researcher Julian Calil’s rising sea levels VR program for cities like Turner Station can help turn the vague, imperceptible issue of climate change into a tangible reality. In turn, this can motivate people to push for policy change for a sustainable future.

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