Innovation

How Sierra Club is using virtual reality to put viewers on the frontlines of climate change

As the Sustainable Innovation Forum in Paris approaches, Sierra Club is making a point by showing people what a melting glacier looks like up close using virtual reality.

Image: Sierra Club

For many, climate change is a line on a graph. Or a pamphlet. Or a talking point during election season.

What frequently gets lost is the reality of a thousands-year-old glacier melting into what looks like a gas station slushie.

In order to put people right in front of the problem as it's happening, the Sierra Club, RYOT, and the Environmental Media Association (EMA) partnered to produce a 360-video called Alaska's Melting Glaciers, including spots like the Byron Glacier, located near Anchorage, Alaska.

The piece puts the viewer inside an ice cave within the glacier. It's pretty, but it exists because the glacier is melting from the bottom up.

Aside from looking at glaciers, viewers also get a look at an Alaskan community whose members have lived on that spot for generations, but now, rising waters and erosion have forced them to move, as chronicled in The Atlantic in August 2015.

"It's not every day in most cases that you get to see the frontlines of climate change," said RYOT COO Molly Swenson.

Toward the end, the piece also highlights some technologies that can be used to slow climate change, as well as the monetary benefits of switching to clean energy.

In just a few weeks, the Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 will take place in Paris, France. Sierra Club's #ActinParis campaign seeks to bring awareness to the negotiations between countries, and the VR experience is a part of that.

Why that matters, said Steve Herz, senior attorney, for Sierra Club's International Climate Program, is that it's "immersive and it makes the crisis immediate."

Alaska's Melting Glaciers came together within about two weeks. RYOT handled the field aspects, things like finding locations. Sierra Club took care of messaging and scripting, Sun said, and EMA conceptualized the piece overall.

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Image: Sierra Club

To provide a voice over tour of the footage, Sierra Club snagged actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto. Leto is on the Sierra Club's arts and entertainment council.

Sierra Club director of entertainment partnerships Melissa Sun said that there was a bit of a learning curve after RYOT and EMA approached them about using virtual reality.

There were even some concerns about accessibility since it's still the early days for virtual reality, and few have even something simple like Cardboard. They decided that using this new technology would be more powerful. And, for what it's worth, YouTube 360 videos are viewable without one, as well as Facebook 360.

Communicating to people how they can watch it has been a challenge.

"The Sierra Club is very large—it has over 60 chapters, 2.5 million supporters, so when we try to roll it out grassroots, everyone has a question about how to watch it," Sun said.

She said that in many ways, this effort via virtual reality boils down to inspiration and access.

"[VR] is a great way to show people this is happening whether you're seeing it or not," Sun said.

Otherwise, something like the effect of climate change can just be out of sight, out of mind.

"We don't want to take people out of nature, we want to inspire them to go into nature... hopefully it's a great way to reach new people to get inspired to get out in the wild themselves," she said. "Our mission is ultimately to get people to protect what they see."

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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