New Thinking

Can virtual reality convince people to believe in climate change?

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Last fall a group of MBA candidates at MIT plotted to attempt the near-impossible: to convince skeptics that climate change poses an imminent threat to human life. The students aimed to inspire dialogue and collective action within communities, using seawater rise and its consequences on the lives of Miami, Florida residents as a case study. The project required the best technology available, and the group would dive headfirst into extensive research and development using university grants. Their medium was virtual reality, and their name drew attention to a menacing, if unspecified, deadline: “Before It’s Too Late.”

Though its urgency and grassroots energy sets the group apart, BITL isn’t the only initiative using virtual and augmented reality (AR) to bring the consequences of climate change to life. For anyone with the stomach to take a glimpse of climate change in action, AR and VR make it possible. In 2015, Chris Milk, a prolific director of music videos and co-founder of the VR production company Within, famously dubbed VR “the ultimate empathy machine,” a call to arms that has resounded with designers and developers seeking to use the technology as a force for good. VR projects like “Melting Ice,” from the production company behind “An Inconvenient Truth” and the forthcoming “An Inconvenient Sequel,” place audiences at the site of some of the most visible and dramatic environmental shifts already in motion. The After Ice app, released in April, places its users in 2080, using location data and an AR overlay to show how high the sea level is projected to rise in their area. And that’s to say nothing of the vast availability of apps depicting an already-changed planet without the assistance of AR and VR, such as NASA’s Images of Change or Al Gore’s Our Choice, which puts unsettling images and data right in their users’ hands.

While Milk’s sermon expounded on VR’s potential to evoke empathy and emotion, however, his message didn’t address an issue key to its success: Back in real reality, how long would that empathy linger? Can VR promote action outside the headset, and if so, will it remain a potent force for change even after the technology becomes ubiquitous? And is it even in our nature, either as consumers or as people, to submit willingly to potentially unpleasant experiences, armed with the knowledge that we’ll emerge better informed—but perhaps no more prepared?

NASA’s Images of Change

According to George Marshall, director of the Oxford-based Climate Outreach Network and author of the 2015 book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, most of us are indeed aware of the threat of climate change, if perhaps not regularly engaged in efforts to bring it to a halt. “We know the majority of people [have] been told now for 20 years in lots of different media—documentaries, TV, radio programs, conversations, by politicians, by leading scientists—that there’s a major problem with climate change,” Marshall says, “yet the vast majority do not understand or recognize the scale of that threat and hugely underestimate it.” As Marshall writes in Don’t Even Think About It, “The bottom line is that we do not accept climate change because we wish to avoid the anxiety it generates and the deep changes it requires.”

At Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson and his students have made some of the highest-profile attempts to actualize the threat within a virtual space using VR as an educational tool. Last year, VHIL attracted significant media attention for the Ocean Acidification Experience, a VR project that places individuals in a coral reef off the island of Ischia in the Mediterranean Sea, where volcanic vents have begun to spew carbon dioxide into the water. The project “demonstrates, viscerally, the effects of carbon dioxide on ocean ecosystems,” Bailenson says. Bailenson is convinced that his work has the power not only to shift mindsets about the environment, but also to inspire more sustainable behaviors. Two studies conducted by the VHIL demonstrate successful techniques for reducing paper use and promoting hot water conservation, both with VR, suggesting the medium’s power to help people draw connections between everyday behaviors and environmental health. A forthcoming longitudinal study from the VHIL of the effects of VR on over 1,000 individuals will present, as Bailenson puts it, “what is likely the largest dataset in VR history in how virtual experiences affect people of various demographics and how long the effects last.”

But Bailenson concedes that VR is “not for everything,” and certainly not all VR projects employ the same communicative techniques, or attempt to engage the same audiences. As the director of the Climate Outreach Network, a group that calls itself “Europe’s leading climate change communicators,” Marshall has devoted his career to identifying the roadblocks to effective communication about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions. The Climate Outreach Network partners with universities across Europe and provides advice and training to organizations, from governments to grassroots groups, seeking to communicate the urgent realities of climate change in a way that is empowering rather than discouraging. Climate Visuals, a key component of the group’s efforts, provides a database of images selected according to what Marshall calls “the ground rules for visual engagement around climate change.”

Developing effective, engrossing climate media that attracts and retains the attention of a disengaged audience may be something of a balancing act, but Marshall insists that it isn’t impossible. VR poses distinct challenges for effective communication, he posits; chief among them: “There’s no reason why VR necessarily increases people’s sense of reality—it could diminish it.” Marshall draws a distinction between VR experiences that feel real and ones that feel realistic, noting, “The difficult balance is how to show stuff which is real enough to get people aware that there’s a problem and that there’s a risk, but also is close enough to the options for solutions, so that people can see there’s a way they might be able to adapt or avoid it.”

From the Ocean Acidification Experience

Marshall stresses the importance of using communications that allow for interactivity, which enable sharing between peers and members of a community (where belief systems are created and perpetuated). And he emphasizes the need to “drop the eco-stuff,” as he writes in Don’t Even Think About It, in favor of human narratives with identifiable causes and effects that encourage cooperative efforts to preserve commonly held values. Crucially, climate communications must work against the false belief that change is happening elsewhere, far away, or that the damage will occur some time in the distant future. Marshall returns frequently, and not without exasperation, to the image of the polar bear alone on a melting piece of ice: an imperiled non-human being somewhere far off in the distance.

Before It’s Too Late echoes these tactics. The group’s leadership have distilled their approach into a “social theory of change,” based on the notion that empathy more reliably influences behavior than knowledge alone and that knowledge and agency make it possible for empathy to translate into action. Linda Cheung, one of the project’s co-founders, says the team sought to tackle the social and political factors preventing widespread engagement, beginning with a deep dive into the social science behind behavioral change and the use of simulations as a training tool. The MIT students developed a network of some 40 individuals across nine universities to develop a high-end multi-player experience with a “pop-up expo,” or roadshow, distribution model, targeted at Americans who are unengaged with or doubtful about climate change. The team has prototyped its first experience, which depicts the rising sea level in South Florida.

Shifting the opinions of community members in pockets of America in which citizens are less likely to be concerned about climate change may be an ambitious goal, but Cheung believes that BITL’s group simulations and approach to community engagement will help them make a hard sell to individuals who fall on the right end of the scale of Yale’s Six Americas. The BITL roadshow will set up shop at arts and film festivals, but the group also plans to target audiences in a more grassroots way: outside of museums, in public spaces and malls, and in partnership with churches and universities. Beyond the multi-player VR experience, the initiative seeks to engage local artists and musicians to join the project and to appoint ambassadors in schools. “You want to reach [users] through people that they already trust,” Cheung says, “so it’s almost like finding evangelists first and partnering with them.”

VR projects at film festivals can attract long lines of interested users, and BITL’s founders want to make use of the wait time to establish physical environments in which community members can create a dialogue with one another. “Sometimes the best way to try to break through or align [people] is actually meet them where they are, in face-to-face settings,” Cheung says. “And we think that in today’s modern world, when communications have become very digitalized and social media has emerged, it creates…echo chambers, and the diversification—the flow of information and communication between diverse groups is getting restricted.”

For the moment, BITL is still steeped in fundraising and prototyping; they’re also in the market to partner with a high-end VR production studio. And before all else, Cheung and her colleagues have to graduate. But while they may not have full production ability, Cheung explained, “What we have here is all of the research and the theory of change.”

And that, according to Marshall, is a crucial first step. “I can see that there’s a real danger that people out there might invest very large resources in developing something when they haven’t worked out…what they’re trying to do,” Marshall said. “And it all becomes very much focused in the production of a product, rather than asking these initial critical questions about who they’re speaking to and what is actually going to work.”

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