Can VR help lawmakers understand the hidden effects of climate change?

While the massive wildfires and apocalyptic skies hovering over California this year were an obvious sign of the climate crisis, there are more subtle yet dangerous effects of the climate crisis that many people don’t see or understand.

To awaken people to the more abstract effects of climate change, such as how a warming climate affects the ways trees grow, geographers at Penn State University have tapped into the idea that ‘seeing is believing’ and created a virtual reality forest where people can experience the abstract effects of climate change firsthand.

The VR forest simulates a forest in Wisconsin and allows anyone to see how different climate models will affect those trees in the future. The idea is that rather than communicating climate change through complex charts, researchers can communicate it through a more personal experience.

Penn State geography professor Alexander Klippel said even though climate change is becoming more prominent, “it’s still something not a lot of people are experiencing themselves.” The VR forest, however, can “reduce this psychological distance, both in terms of space but also in terms of time.” 

In the virtual Wisconsin forest, you can witness the effects that different models of climate change will have on how many trees grow in an area, or how tall they get. The researchers also made it so that you can switch to a bird’s-eye view or different elevations, instantly get information on tree species, and switch between different climate scenarios to compare the impacts.

Looking forward, Klippel hopes VR experiences such as this will help people understand how different actions and mitigation efforts that we make now could affect what that forest looks like in the coming decades. The VR forest is also meant to be readily understandable to anyone, whether it be an expert who wants to visualize a climate model or a policymaker who needs to understand the future impacts of their decision.

“It’s really a tool that can add to the ways we have at our disposal to communicate the science behind our decisions and the science behind changes in the environment.”

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