Can virtual reality get us to care more about climate change?

The enormity and complexity of the climate crisis can be overwhelming, but researchers at Brock University are exploring ways to help people connect with climate issues emotionally so they'll be more motivated to act.

Researchers at Brock University say engaging people's emotions key to prompting action on climate change

Jessica Blythe, a researcher at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., is running a virtual reality experiment aimed at fostering empathy for oceans. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

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Mikellina Nettos is peering at schools of fish as they swim in the ocean around her. The bottoms of sustainable fishing boats float above, and rays of sunlight shine through the water. 

Except she's not actually in the ocean. The master's student is wearing virtual reality goggles and is taking part in a simulated high-seas experience at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. 

"It was a really immersive experience. It was cool to see all the fish swimming underwater and the large sailfish swimming right past me," she said.

The virtual voyage is part of an experiment aimed at fostering empathy for the world's oceans, with the ultimate goal of encouraging action on climate change.

It comes at a time of heightened anxiety around climate change as world leaders wrap up the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

Still, the climate crisis can feel distant to some, and the scope of the problem can be difficult to grasp.

Creating a personal connection can help motivate action

At Brock University, researchers show participants optimistic and pessimistic future scenarios of what the oceans could look like in 2050, then measure and analyze their levels of ocean empathy. 

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In the optimistic scenario, there has been a commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable use of the ocean, and coastal communities are thriving. In contrast, in the pessimistic scenario, over-fishing is rampant, biodiversity is declining, and participants see an empty ocean speckled with bits of garbage. 

"We wanted to try to bring the oceans a bit closer to people so they are one of our priorities when we think about tackling climate change," said Jessica Blythe, an assistant professor at Brock's Environmental Sustainability Research Centrewho is part of the team behind the project.

So far, Blythe said, it's working. 

Measurable impacts

Participants are scoring higher on empathy after watching or reading about future scenarios, and indicating an intention to take action. Researchers ranked participants' levels of sympathy, compassion and concern for the high seas. 

The next step is to see if that intent translates into behavioural changes. In another, similar experiment looking at trees, Blythe said there was a measurable impact. 

"After experiencing tree-planting in a virtual reality environment, people were using less paper in an immediate follow-up behaviour experiment," she said.

WATCH | One of the virtual ocean scenarios Brock researchers devised:

Cutting through the numbness 

The project is one way researchers are using innovative approaches to relay the realities of climate change and break through feelings of helplessness. 

Whether it is showing high school students the impacts of ocean acidification, using virtual reality to spur community solutions around sea level rise, or helping people visualise their carbon footprint, experts say such tools can touch people personally and entice them to act.

We would like people to not just experience the concern emotionally, but also turn that into action.- Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of Mila

Large-scale problems like climate change can be so daunting that people end up turning off their emotions. Dr. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies risk and decision-making, said it's a phenomenon called "psychic numbing."

"If we are relying on our feelings, and we are not getting them from the numbers. There is a sense of numbness there," Slovic said.

He has studied this in the context of genocide and nuclear war. 

A project called 'This Climate Does Not Exist' uses artificial intelligence to simulate images of climate disasters at any location across the globe. (Mila )

When it comes to climate change, he said fostering empathy by creating a personal and emotional connection can help break through the numbness.

"It's a necessary condition to get people to care about the problem and to see how it can affect them in a meaningful way," Slovic said.

While there are many other psychological and political barriers to action, Slovic said creating empathy is an important first step.

Motivations are different for different people

University of Victoria psychologist Dr. Robert Gifford has studied the psychological barriers that keep people from taking action on climate change, identifying 42 so-called "dragons of inaction." They include feeling a lack of control, and prioritizing other goals and aspirations.

"It's the kind of rationalizations, justifications, excuses that we use," he said. 

Building empathy can help, but Gifford points out that different people are motivated by different things.

For some, it might be their grandchildren, for others, their jobs. 

"To the extent that it's possible to talk to one person or one segment of the population, the important thing is to figure out what's important to that person or that group."

Making the hypothetical more recognizable

Another project, a website called This Climate Does Not Exist, uses visual simulations to show what any address or landmark could look like under the effects of climate disasters after a flood, or a fire. 

"What matters is the feeling we get by recognizing this place we may know under the hypothetical circumstance," said Yoshua Bengio, who heads Quebec's artificial intelligence research institute, known as Mila, which created the website. 

"So we can feel for others who are today already suffering from climate change."

Yoshua Bengio is the scientific director of Mila, the institute behind This Climate Does Not Exist. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The website also offers a list of suggestions for actions individuals can take, from contacting local governments, to changing buying habits. 

Bengio sees the project, and technology generally, as elements in the bigger picture of climate solutions. 

 "We also have to be humble," he said. "A lot of it is politics."

Blythe sees it that way, too. That's why she hopes to take her VR experiment to ocean-policy makers, "to see if we can shift the way policy-makers are thinking in making choices about oceans."


Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal.

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