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Envisioning Climate: A Virtual Reality Workshop

May 17 – May 28, 2021
Research Question

“The year is 2100. The world is now an average of 4°C warmer, and, as climate refugees flee the searing heat of places like Southern Europe, which has temperatures akin to those in 21st-century Sub-Saharan Africa, armed conflict over increasingly limited resources is ever-present. Even in areas like Great Britain that enjoy somewhat cooler temperatures akin to the Middle East of 2015, the impact of ferocious cyclones, intensified by the much warmer ocean threatens places, such as Scotland, which never saw such storms. Sea-level rise has entirely consumed low-lying areas like the Maldives; they are now completely underwater. Summer heat and aridity have loosened topsoil, making it vulnerable to erosion by increasingly severe winter rainfall, rendering the land both infertile and, in many cases, uninhabitable across the U.K. and the rest of the great middle swath of our world. Farther south, desertification and drought continue their ongoing march over once fertile agricultural lands in Spain and Portugal.” (2100: A Dystopian Utopia – The City After Climate Change)

Is this the future we want? No? Well, it’s not too late to change course.

How can we mobilize to change the future for the better? Climate change unquestionably represents the biggest challenge to the continued presence of humankind—or any other species—on this planet. Managing and attempting to limit the effects of global warming should be our biggest project, prompting us to marshal our collective will, energy, and creativity to design a livable solution to the inevitable shifts in weather and habitat.

Urgent timelines alone, however, are not enough to prompt action. This workshop aimed to make the invisible visible and tangible by harnessing virtual reality as an empathy machine. Taking inspiration from VR artists and creatives like Participant Media and Condition One (This Is Climate Change), Marshmallow Laser Feast (In the Eyes of the Animal, Ocean of Air), Winslow Porter and Milica Zec (Tree), Tamiko Thiel (Evolution of Fish, Unexpected Growth), the Yale University Hackathon (The Reality of Global Climate Change), among others, we brought to life the latest climate data on New York’s potential future(s) in VR with the aim of creating immersive experiences that can spur us to positive change in the here and now.

“The immersive and engaging nature of virtual reality has been used to help tackle the impact of climate change and motivate and inspire us to solve the climate crisis. Filmmakers and advocacy groups have turned to the medium as a tool for building empathy and driving action. Research has shown that using virtual reality to engage and change behavior works. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that if a person has a VR experience of cutting down a tree—during which they feel the vibration and sound of the chainsaw and the crash of the tree—that person is more likely to conserve paper.”
Sol Rogers in Forbes, Could Virtual Reality Make Us Care More About Climate Change? (November 2019)

“Studies show that VR experiences influence behavior and decision-making. Consider  one study  that gave participants avatars resembling aged versions of themselves. When interacting as their older avatars, participants were more likely to sacrifice immediate financial rewards for long-term benefits. Researchers concluded this experience opened up cognitive channels that increased real-world interest in saving for retirement.  Another study gave participants VR avatars of differing heights and asked them to participate in negotiation exercises. Those with taller avatars behaved more confidently and negotiated more aggressively … The experience often triggers emotions as if you were physically there. In fact, the same mirror neurons fire when we perform an action ourselves as when we observe someone else perform the same action. This makes VR experiences a powerful way to build empathy…”
Artefact Group, VR Changes How We Think. Now What?

Methodology

Our approach as architects and VR practitioners deeply committed to solving the climate crisis is unique in the field. This workshop focused on a superfund site adjacent to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (see case study in 2100: A Dystopian Utopia –The City After Climate Change) in looking at how various warming scenarios would impact New York City. The workshop explored the persuasive power of VR and created immersive experiences aimed at spurring people towards empathy as well as action. For students, this experience was intended to spark innovation while also preparing them to become civically engaged professionals at this pivotal moment in our collective history. Each group was asked to prepare an experience showing different alternate realities on the site. The scenarios portrayed in each piece show the same site transformed by different choices—ones that we are actively in the process of making in the present. Decisions we make now have as their end result anywhere from 1°C to 6°C of warming. But what does that actually look like? Students were asked to consider how the immersive environments they were creating would shift between different states, for instance, a one degree vs. a four degree world. Each group also chose from a series of environmental challenges (hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, etc.) loosely organized by element (fire, air, water, and earth), selecting two of these as anchors. They were asked to reference the book, Six Degrees, by Mark Lynas, which goes back in the fossil record to paint a vivid and often disturbing portrait of a hotter Earth. They were also assigned works of speculative climate fiction, New York 2140 and Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which portray vivid imaginings of potential futures. Will we escape in search of another planet? Will we see the ruins of partially submerged buildings in New York City with rush hour traffic now on city waterways? Students were tasked with considering how their work might make people think differently about the impact of our actions in the present. They also considered how the use of nature within the experience might help to garner empathy for the natural world and the other species who inhabit our shared environment.

“So it’s still New York. People can’t give up on it. It’s what economists used to call the tyranny of sunk costs: once you’ve put so much time and money into a project, it gets hard to just eat your losses and walk. You are forced by the structure of the situation to throw good money after bad, grow obsessed, double down, escalate your commitment, and become a mad gibbering apartment dweller, unable to imagine leaving. You persevere unto death, a monomaniacal New Yorker to the end.” ― Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140.

Output and Findings
We are seeking possible venues for exhibiting this work.

Student Work

Fan Liu, Nile Meridian Johnson

When the Sidewalk Ends

Watch the Envisioning Climate A Virtual Reality Workshop playlist on YouTube.

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