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Virtual Reality can help politicians make responsible decisions about the environment

There’s been no shortage of apocalyptic images lately, from massive hurricanes in the Caribbean and Texas to California’s deadliest wildfires ever. Scientists say global warming has magnified the impact of disasters like these. Still, some legislators deny the impact of climate change or oppose any restrictions on carbon emissions. I’ve long said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a virtual reality experience is worth 1,000 pictures. Could virtual reality change their minds?

Researchers Tobin Asher and Elise Ogle from my lab at Stanford, where we study how virtual reality impacts people’s behavior, flew with me to the tiny South Pacific island nation of Palau this summer to find out.

Palau, whose land mass is only slightly larger than San Jose, California but, due to nautical law, controls a chunk of ocean roughly the size of France, is famed for two things – its exceptionally vibrant coral reefs and its susceptibility to the impacts of climate change including rising sea levels and warmer waters.

In early July, we watched a dozen tourists clinging to a raft in the warm sea off the coastline as they smashed their finned feet against precious underwater corals, dislodging them from a rocky perch.

The Soft Coral Arch provides crucial “ocean shade” to nurture a diverse ecosystem that scuba divers and snorkelers fly from around the globe to experience. Seasoned snorkelers can navigate without hitting the arch’s walls, but on the day my team and I captured the encounter with an underwater spherical video camera rig, tourists ricocheted off the reef like pinballs.

“Look at that guy, he is destroying it,’’ a delegate in Palau’s House of Delegates exclaimed as he watched the virtual reality scene in an HTC Vive virtual reality headset the next day, recoiling from the finned feet that he perceived above him. “He is kicking the corals.’’

While he has lived his life in Palau, the delegate — like most of his fellow politicians — doesn’t dive or snorkel but instead prefers fishing. (Only one out of the 12 lawmakers who did the demonstrations that day said he had ever dived or snorkeled before.) So the politicians have little or no firsthand experience with the underwater reefs that sustain their economy, but are threatened by climate change, careless tourists, and expanded commercial farming, which produces sediment runoff that stresses the ecosystem.

During a day of virtual reality demonstrations, other Palauan legislators had similarly powerful reactions. One suggested that the virtual reality simulation be mandatory for tourists before they board snorkeling boats so they know what not to do during the excursion. Another suggested that virtual reality demonstrations be put in schools. And legislators enthusiastically passed a Call to Action that day to integrate climate change research into its ocean policy, through “assessments based on scientific study and traditional knowledge systems to inform and support decision making.”

The resolution probably would have passed without the virtual reality demonstrations. But as Rob Dunbar, the Stanford climate scientist who presented his findings to the legislators, told me, the VR experiences “likely made a difference.” Sadly, small nations like Palau don’t have the power to affect the rate of C02 production worldwide, so their only defense is to adapt in order to minimize the impact, for example giving corals a fighting chance to survive the warmer waters by stopping tourists from treating them like soccer balls.

But in the U.S., we do have the power – we produce about 15 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. In some ways, the lawmakers in Palau are similar to the ones here. Many U.S. lawmakers put forth development and energy policies in the abstract, with no direct experience of outcomes related to climate change. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association under President Obama, told me about a noted climate change-denying lawmaker whose district was ravaged by a natural disaster. He had told Lubchenco that the disaster caused him to “see the light,” and to shift his views on climate change.

There is a reason why in Florida, Republican lawmakers have been more receptive to acting on climate change than others in their party. They are already struggling with rising sea levels. But not every member of Congress is experiencing natural disasters in their districts firsthand. With technology, they can experience predicted future impacts virtually.

In 2016, we took a virtual reality experience of carbon dioxide’s predicted decimation of ocean life to the Capitol Hill visitor center. After trying the demo, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said it called “attention to the peril our oceans face and what we must do to protect them.”

All lawmakers should experience firsthand what climate change will do to their districts—whether it’s coastal flooding, food scarcity from drought, or damage from unprecedented storms. Virtual disaster is harmless, but the consequence of inaction on climate change is very real.

Thanks to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, who funded our trip to Palau.

Jeremy 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.

He has published more than 100 academic papers, in interdisciplinary journals such as Science and PLoS One, as well domain-specific journals in the fields of communication, computer science, education, environmental science, law, marketing, medicine, political science, and psychology. His work has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation for 15 years, and he receives grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, various nonprofit foundations, and corporations based in Silicon Valley and abroad. He is the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Stanford.

He has written opinion pieces for The Washington Post, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has produced three VR documentary experiences which were official selections at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and 2017.

His new book, “Experience on Demand” will be published by Norton in January.

Watch Charlie Rose interview Jeremy Bailenson about human behavior and virtual reality.