This Is What Climate Change Looks Like in VR

How seeing CO2 made me write my congressman

Adam Piore
Published in
7 min readJul 31, 2018


Photo: AJ Colores on Unsplash

AsAs I look down from space on our spinning blue and green planet, I understand why astronauts so often describe the experience of “Earth-gazing” as life-changing. I’m seeing our tiny planet highlighted against the infinite black expanse of the universe as I have never seen it before. It really does evoke a visceral sense of vastness and wonder.

It would be intimidating were I not able to anchor myself with familiar landmarks. That dry patch over there is the Sahara Desert. There’s the North Pole. And that’s North America! Below is the verdant Brazilian rainforest. Here comes Australia, with its vast expanse of parched Outback — and that long, lush green chain of islands must be Indonesia. I feel a profound sense of pride. Earth may be a tiny, insignificant speck in the universe, but this amazing speck is our home.

My reverie is broken by a somber female voice. “Climate change has begun.”

I’m not actually in outer space, of course. I’m standing in a bare Columbia University classroom on Manhattan’s West Side. I’m wearing virtual reality goggles tethered to a computer, headphones swallow up my ears, and I’m holding controllers that allow me to reach out and “touch” the world around me. It’s so immersive that a researcher trails behind me to make sure I don’t accidentally walk into a wall or out a window.

I’m in the middle of a virtual reality demonstration to experience the not-so-distant future of global warming and its impact on our oceans. It’s designed to make climate change feel as real and immediate as the news of a neighbor’s sudden passing.

Earth disappears, and a glowing blue orb — a crystal ball — materializes in front of me, hovering in the air. I touch the orb and I’m in broad daylight, standing in New York City traffic, cars all around me, horns blaring.

“Look at the gray car in front of you. Bend down and touch the exhaust pipe.” I step forward and touch the exhaust pipe, glowing fluorescent green, on a Toyota sedan. It’s as if I’ve poked a beehive. Circular red and blue molecules come buzzing out of the exhaust pipe. “These are CO2 molecules. Humans release over 22…



Adam Piore

Journalist and the author of the Body Builders, Inside the science of the engineered human, a book about bioengineering.