Can Virtual Reality Help Solve the Climate Crisis?

virtual reality is most known for its use in video games, but can it serve another purpose? over the past few years, scientists have used virtual reality experiences to teach people about their impact on the environment and prompt them to take action against climate change.


If you know someone who is still does not believe that climate change exists or is sceptical about it, you might suggest that they become a tree for a few hours. That is the premise of the virtual reality (VR) experience, Tree, which transforms the user into a rainforest tree, with the user’s arms becoming branches and the body becoming the tree’s trunk. The user experiences the tree’s growth as if they were growing from a seedling as well, facing the same challenges real rainforest trees do. The experience is meant to educate people about nature’s beauty and fragility, prompting them to think more about how our actions, as humans, impact the environment. Tree has gained prominence by partnering with the Rainforest Alliance (an international non-profit organisation to protect forests, farmers and forest communities) and by premiering at renowned film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival in the United States.  

If you know someone who is still does not believe that climate change exists or is sceptical about it, you might suggest that they become a tree for a few hours. That is the premise of the virtual reality (VR) experience, Tree, which transforms the user into a rainforest tree, with the user’s arms becoming branches and the body becoming the tree’s trunk.

One way to teach people about climate change is to show what the personal consequences will be for them. In a piece for NPRNathan Rott wrote about a VR experience that taught a Maryland community about sea level rise. Rott noted that if the community could not imagine what it is like to undergo sea level rise, sea level rise would become difficult to face and prioritise. Therefore, the community would not be prepared for when sea levels did rise. It is harder to imagine a reality of significant sea level rise when you are not thinking of it because you have several other issues that feel more immediate and tangible in your daily life. That is where VR can step in by making the effects of climate change feel more immediate and personal to emphasise the fact that climate change is happening all around us, all the time. Often it can be challenging for individuals to link natural events, such as extreme droughts and more powerful hurricanes, that are increasing in severity to climate change.  

The driving idea behind all of these VR experiences is to make users more “environmentally literate,” meaning they are working both individually and with others to make informed decisions about the environment, and will act on these decisions to improve general wellbeing in society and health of the planet. By becoming more environmentally literate, users will become more invested in solving the climate crisis because they have undergone virtual encounters with specific and more tangible examples of what climate change will do to the planet if it continues on its current trajectory. VR experiences offer a unique opportunity to educate users on climate change because it employs multiple human senses and is fully immersive. It can make the effects of climate change feel much nearer and more personal than they would by only watching a video of wildfires or listening to a calving iceberg, or a big chunk of ice that breaks off from a glacier and falls into the water. 

VR experiences offer a unique opportunity to educate users on climate change because it employs multiple human senses and is fully immersive.

In the collection of four ten-minute videos, This Is Climate Change, users will be surrounded by both wildfires and calving icebergs. These videos, called “Fire” and “Melting Ice,” respectively, are different from Tree in that you are not part of the nature undergoing devastating change, but an observer placed in the middle of the action. “Melting Ice” was the first video meant to pair with Al Gore’s documentary film, An Inconvenient Sequel, and later turned into the whole series. The former American vice president and environmental activist narrates this video. 

According to American environmental group, the Sierra Club, the user is unable to escape from “gargantuan glaciers collapsing into blue waters.” Meanwhile, “Fire” takes the user to the 2017 California wildfires, where the user cannot turn around without seeing firefighters clearing brush away or dropping fire retardant onto the 1.3 million acres the fires destroyed. This specific video would be just as applicable now, as wildfires are burning throughout the western United States for the third consecutive month and Australia continues to recover from the devastating fires from last year. 

“Fire” and “Melting Ice” are meant to be a pair, with the other two videos — “Feast” and “Famine” — forming a pair as well. “Feast” places the user in Brazil, showing animals being taken to slaughter for the meat industry, while “Famine” transports the user to a refugee camp in Somalia during the middle of an extreme drought. This devastating world tour helps you witness the most devastating effects of climate change in action with your own eyes, rather than with a far-removed camera lens. This Is Climate Change’s co-director says point of the video collection isn’t to “grandstand or finger waggle”, but to demonstrate that everyone is complicit in the current climate crisis, and that we all need to find a better balance between our actions and the needs of the environment.  

This experiment shows that if we can recognise our role as humans in driving climate change and understand what that role means for the environment, we can be inspired to make changes in our lives to prevent the worst of the climate crisis.

Understanding the connection between human activity and climate change is as important as recognising that the connection exists, because then we can more clearly see the effects of our activities in environment. An experiment from Stanford University is meant to make this connection clear. This experiment, which was done as part of the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, had people pretend to cut down a tree with a joystick that acted as a chainsaw. Stanford found that users used about twenty percent less paper after this experiment than those who only read or watched a video about cutting down trees. This experiment shows that if we can recognise our role as humans in driving climate change and understand what that role means for the environment, we can be inspired to make changes in our lives to prevent the worst of the climate crisis. VR will not solve the climate crisis by itself, but maybe if we pretend to be a tree or cut one down, we will be inspired to try.  

Art by Tatiana Dickins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s