As 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 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each day.”
The stream of molecules zip past me and float up into the sky. Now I’m on the bow of a boat, off the coast of Naples, Italy. I look up and see that the ominous swarm of CO2 molecules has become an angry colony of red and blue drones, hovering insidiously across the horizon.
One of the molecules separates itself from the others and increases in size. I watch as it floats down toward me and the ocean’s surface. Another molecule, this one H2O, floats up from the ocean to meet it. The two combine to form a larger compound. The voice tells me that the union forms carbonic acid. I’m sent underwater.
Schools of fish swim by a colorful coral reef. I’m instructed to pick up flags in a bucket at my feet and place them on every snail I find. I see them thriving in crevices of the reef’s tentacles. But in a flash, the snails and fish disappear and the reef turns brown with fuzzy algae. CO2 bubbles rise up from the ground all around me. “There are no living sea snails here,” the voice says. “They can’t survive.” Neither can oysters, clams, and plankton. The ecosystem has collapsed. The voice returns. “The future of our earth is in your hands,” it says.