News & Perspectives

VR Makes Climate Change Visceral: A Story from Palau

VR Makes Climate Change Visceral: A Story from Palau

An Interview with Jeremy Bailenson, Author of Experience on Demand (Part 2)
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 17 Mar 2018
Climate Change and VR

ENTER: How might virtual experiences impact climate issues favorably? I know you’ve been asked this before, but I’d like to get this from your own mouth.

JB: Well let me give you a new answer. I’ll give you an older answer if you’d like, but I’m really excited for this work we just did, in Palau.

Palau, for people who don’t know, it’s a small network of islands in Micronesia. It’s about the size of San Jose, California, in terms of its landmass, but due to nautical law, it controls a chunk of ocean the size of France. And this ocean is famed for its unbelievable coral reefswhich rival any on the planet.

However, Palau is also one of the nations that’s most threatened by climate change, for two reasons. One is that it’s a network of islands and, as sea level rises, it’s of course going to face challenges just in existing. About 20,000 citizens live in Palau, and they get about five times that many visitors coming each year as tourists. The challenge is, as coral gets bleached and as ocean acidification wipes out populations of marine animals, Palau’s economy is going to be threatened. There’s not much to do there on land, from a tourist’s perspective, so people come to go diving.

Tobin Asher and Elise Ogle, who worked in my lab, and myself, joined a Stanford sea class with Rob Dunbar— a climate change scientist—and Bob Richmond, who worked for the University of Hawaii and is a coral expert. We spent two weeks on a dive boat. We captured underwater footage of places where the coral around the islands are threatened, where it’s thriving, and where it’s been decimated. Palau’s populationis  so small, they could cut their CO2 emissions in half and nobody would notice. So the only thing they can do at this point is adapt to climate change—and three are three things they can do to adapt.

First, They can create more protective areas so that it doesn’t get over-fished. They can regulate tourists, so that tourists who go visit these places don’t destroy the reef—or better, train tourists. The third thing they can do is try to prevent runoff from the islands. Commercial farming destroys the mangroves, the mangroves protect the sediment from going into the water, the sediment kills the coral.

So we spent two weeks really working hard to film all these places underwater. Now we’re in the process of making an interactive VR journey where people can learn about climate change and adaptation. We were lucky enough to find a pristine, beautiful spot called Soft Coral Arch. And then we were there while it was pristine—and then the first of many tourist boats arrived that day. All of the tourists jumped out of the boat. A lot of them didn’t know how to swim; they were holding onto rafts. We filmed the tourists as they came in, kicking their fins against the corals, knocking the soft coral off the arch…  we captured all that in VR. Then our team stayed up all night one night, and stitched together a before and after

We then took that footage to senators and house delegates in Palau—about 13 senators, and twice as many house delegates. We went to a meeting where most of the lawmakers were, and put them in the goggles.  We showed them the before and after.

Now, as a side note, the culture of Palau is such that among these lawmakers, very few of them go scuba diving or snorkeling. A lot of them are afraid of sharks. They go fishing, but they don’t go underwater. So a lot of them hadn’t seen their own reefs, and their minds were blown by the beauty. But when we showed them the after… Well, you had to see this. People were yelling, they were saying that they wanted to put this inside all of the dive boats, so that tourists could learn what not to do. They’re changing their laws on how they train tourists, in part because of experiencing this. What we did it in Palau actually resulted, perhaps—I can’t say that with 100% authority—but we think it was influential in actually forming policy. It’s a way that you can show lawmakers things that are very abstract in their lives, and make them more visceral.

So making these hidden things not only visible, but visceral, could be a tremendous boon for political rather climate activism it seems to me.

As you know, in Experience on Demand we interview one of my academic heroes. Her name is Dr. Jane Lubchenco. She was a head of NOAA for 4 years under president Obama. When we interviewed her, she told us the story of a lawmaker— I’m not going to name him, but he was a very vocal climate change denier—and when his district was hurt badly by a natural disaster, even though he had specifically said before that extreme weather is not caused by climate change, after it happened, his direct quote was, I believe, “I have seen the light. I am now a believer.” Which is basicallty what happens when when you have an experience with a natural disaster.

There’s a reason why Republican lawmakers in Florida are worried about climate change. It’s not a political thing; it’s actually affecting their economy. And it drives me bonkers that for some reason the climate change science has become a political issue. I don’t know why it has. But when someone has direct experience, like the lawmakers in Florida, it changes hearts and minds. And with VR, you can give everyone a very experiential depiction of what their own world is going to look like, what their own city is going to look like, with things like droughts, sea level rise, etc.

ENTER: Many astronauts have commented that, if people on Earth could see the world from halfway to the moon, their sense of responsibility for the planet would completely change. I Ten or 15 years from now, that might be one of the most popular VR experiences people will be having.

JB: Space in VR is quite fun!


About Jeremy Bailenson

Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication, Professor (by courtesy) of Education, Professor (by courtesy) Program in Symbolic Systems, a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and a Faculty Leader at Stanford’s Center for Longevity. He earned a B.A. cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1994 and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Northwestern University in 1999. He spent four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Post-Doctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Research Professor.

Bailenson studies the psychology of Virtual Reality (VR), in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space, and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction. His most recent research focuses on how VR can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy, and health.


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Continue to PART 3: VR and the Real World

Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.