Is VR The Secret Sauce For Climate Action?

Is VR The Secret Sauce For Climate Action?
August 1, 2018


It’s one thing to logically know that humans are inflicting largely irreversible damage upon the natural world. It’s another to see, hear, and in a sense feel what’s happening from the perspective of those plants and animals at the front lines of drought, fire, and melting ice caps. As technology evolves, it is becoming ever simpler to strap on a headset and experience the changing climate in the 360-degree world of virtual reality (VR). But could the visceral nature of the newly accessible VR better inspire climate-change-reversing actions and activism? 


While the answer isn’t clear, VR is certainly gaining steam as a tool for climate education. COP23’s Virtual Reality Climate Change Project shared Fiji’s climate change story with global leaders at the UN summit last November in Bonn, Germany; since the film returned home last spring, thousands of Fijians have experienced it too. In February, Yale University hosted its inaugural Reality of Global Climate Change Hackathon, which challenged students to use VR, augmented reality, and motion-capture tools to turn climate change data into hard-hitting games and visuals.


Earlier this month, climate change VR became available to anyone with a smartphone, thanks to This Is Climate Change, Participant Media’s collection of four 10-minute VR experiences, aptly titled “Melting Ice,” “Fire,” “Feast,” and “Famine.” The series, directed by Eric Strauss and Danfung Dennis, premiered in its entirety at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival last April, and all episodes are now available via Within, a VR app you can try with or without headsets (which typically cost anywhere from $200 to $800).


From the comfort of a coffee shop in San Francisco (where it’s worth noting that donning a high-tech-looking headset in public won’t net you a second look), I recently immersed myself in the rising seas and raging fires of This Is Climate Change. The series affirmed just how infrequently I perceive the fact that climate change is taking place all around me. 


If you, too, seek to blur those lines entirely, I’d recommend a VR experience. 


The first installment of This Is Climate Change, “Melting Ice,” features Al Gore and was in fact conceived as a companion piece to Participant Media’s An Inconvenient Sequel (a.k.a. 2017’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth). The pilot leaves you with no escape from gargantuan glaciers collapsing into blue waters. Sounds of ice turned into roaring rivers will fill your ears. Look to your left and right, and you’ll be met with ever more violently stunning scenery, often in the form of calving icebergs.

“Fire” drops you into the rapid-response reality of those firefighters dispatched to battle Northern California’s $180 billion 2017 blazes—the historically tragic crisis that burned 1.3 million acres and upwards of 10,000 structures and drove home several consequences of our increasingly hot climate. I felt heat rise from my pores as I was virtually engulfed in flames that went on to rage across forested terrain. I tried to turn away from the “heat” only to witness firefighters clearing brush from dangerous ridges; I looked up to see others dropping fire retardant from dangerous heights. Within the episode’s 10-minute duration, entire neighborhoods turned to charred ruins. 


I needed a break, and a few sips of iced tea, before putting the headset back on for “Feast.” At first, this installment was pleasant, almost IMAX-like—I soared over Brazil’s beautiful but increasingly threatened rainforest, whose majestic trees are being felled by illegal loggers. Then, it was on to one of the western world’s many enormous cattle farms—one of the major drivers of deforestation in the Amazon. There, I faced animals eye-to-eye as they marched toward their slaughter. In this medium, I almost felt I could smell their panic.

While I was, at this point, abundantly impressed with the grade-A cinematography and production of This Is Climate Change, I can’t say I was looking forward to “Famine,” the final and easily most affecting installment. It transports viewers to a refugee camp in the midddle of Somalia’s extreme drought, where rising temperatures have turned once-fertile lands into arid, year-round deserts, the result of which is a generation of displaced denizens—and the most dangerously malnourished children.


To learn more about how this medium manages to turn viewers into real-life, complicit actors—and to glean insight into VR’s potential future as a tool for climate activism—I called up Eric Strauss, co-director of This Is Climate Change.

Sierra: Tell us about the inspiration for this project.

Eric Strauss: VR is definitely a complicated medium, so Participant brought on board Condition One, a pretty cutting-edge VR production company that was founded by my fellow director and creator Danfung Dennis. He’d been asked to create "Melting Ice" specifically to pair with An Inconvenient Sequel, and Participant was so pleased that it became a pilot, launching this whole series. So we spent the next year crisscrossing the globe, trying to highlight the effects of climate change wherever they were happening and to showcase what’s affecting us and being devastated now, rather than in 20 years. 

How did you settle on the four locations you ultimately chose to feature in This Is Climate Change?

We conceived of the episodes as pairings—ice and fire; feast and famine. It’s why we’ve got you up above the Arctic Circle, then amidst these raging fires, and then in a desert, followed by a rainforest. Of course, there were lots of places we could’ve gone to witness the devastating impacts of climate change—but ultimately, we became attracted to the idea of depicting these almost oppositional pairings to create what we hope are strong, affecting juxtapositions. Our hope was that after viewing “Feast,” where you see the lush forests of Brazil and experience this story that’s ultimately about consumption—about rapacious consumerism—you’ll more fully appreciate the food insecurity of Somalia, where people are living on the fringe because of drought and climate change. The point wasn’t to grandstand or to finger-waggle, but just to genuinely illustrate that we’re all a little complicit in this, and that we need to find a better balance. 

Who did you create this series for?

We’re all impacted by climate change—some more than others, of course—and we’re all contributing to what’s happening, so in some ways the intended audience was everyone. Our goal was and is to have this series as widely seen as possible. There’s obviously a tremendous amount of information out there about climate change, and a tremendous amount of media tackling it, so one of the things that was most creatively challenging and inspiring was to create a totally different type of experience around it. Our episodes are not heavy on info—the idea was to kind of teleport you into these environments and situations, and to create an experiential response that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by data and information.


The idea of immersing you in a wildfire, for instance, alongside the crews dispatched to actually deal with it, and to put you in the actual midst of desertous famine, is to provide a climate change gut punch. VR is a new medium, and the medium and the film industry itself is still exploring new ways to push this transportive kind of storytelling. I’m so excited that the barriers to entry to this tech are quickly being removed, that this type of experience is rapidly becoming more accessible.


“Our episodes are not heavy on info—the idea was to kind of teleport you into these environments and situations, and to create an experiential response that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by data and information. The idea of immersing you in a wildfire, for instance, alongside the crews dispatched to actually deal with it, and to put you in the actual midst of desertous famine, is to provide a climate change gut punch.”


Talk about how you see VR’s future.

I’m old enough to remember all the predictions about the internet in the late 90s—that it wasn’t really there yet and probably wouldn’t amount to anything. VR has been coming along for a number of years, and I think it’s now getting to the point where it offers a  profound and different experience than what you’d experience on a TV or your laptop—it truly makes you feel different. I’m no industry prophet, but I would say I believe that VR is here to stay—I don’t think it’s gonna replace traditional forms of media storytelling, but I do think it’s a literal revolution, one that offers different ways to experience stories, and in this case, very important stories.


That’s one of the things that really inspired me: that VR could be a real force for good. Powerful, immersive technology can alter people’s perceptions and consciousness. It can create those kind of out-of-body experiences that can shift the way people act or respond, once they take those headsets off.

What’s your intended takeaway?

Coming back to the juxtapositions, we were excited about featuring the Northern California wildfire story alongside the droughts of Somalia. In the latter, you have people in a very resource-insecure part of the world, where as you’d imagine, climate change is tipping the scales in a way that’s detrimental to their survival. But then we also bring you to NorCal, one of the most resource-secure parts of the world, and it’s all to say, climate change spares no one. It doesn’t care about income, doesn’t care about where in the world you are. We wanted to communicate that it’s a force we’re allgonna have to contend with. 

Did you create this series in hopes of inspiring any specific types of action?

Not necessarily. Maybe you can’t personally put out the fires in California or fix the crisis in Somalia, but there are tons of studies showing that reducing our meat intake is better for the environment. Yes, climate change is vast, global, and overwhelming, but hopefully this series causes you to think a little harder about what we can control—personal choices, and to some extent, our local governments.

In any case, we wanted to show that we’re all complicit—and we’re all affected. Climate change isn’t a new problem, nor a new documentary subject. But the impetus behind This Is Climate Change was to use sensorial richness to show the very tangible effects of rising temperatures on a wide variety of ecosystems. Whether it’s a crumbling ice sheet above you, a frightened cow in a kill chute below you, or a malnourished child in front of you, the immersive “you are there” effect of this medium is a powerful tool that brings us all closer to reality. We hope these kinds of comparisons and juxtapositions make for a more holistic, compassionate, immersive, and motivating view of climate change.

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