These MIT Grad Students Are Fighting Climate Change With Virtual Reality

Technology marries Hollywood-like cinematography with scientific truths

“Climate change is happening now and all of our actions are leading to it,” Linda Cheung asserts. “We see an environment that is becoming more inviting on this issue, and now being an opportune time to transcend to the next level of moving from awareness to action and solutions.”

Donald Trump has called climate change a Chinese hoax. He and members of his administration regularly disparage efforts to combat the problem. After appointing Scott Pruitt, a prominent climate change denier and former attorney general of Oklahoma, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump announced major budget cuts to the agency. The outcry from climate-focused organizations was swift, but so far toothless. But it also echoes from unexpected quarters. Among the newest is a team of graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The MIT students have launched a project, Before It’s Too Late, that involves the use of interactive virtual reality simulations to activate new allies in the climate change clash. It’s a movement that “emerged around a frustration that not enough is happening and that this issue is very urgent and large,” says co-founder Linda Cheung, a second-year MBA student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Cheung’s and others’ frustrations come at a charged time. February 2017 was the second-hottest February since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started recording such data. (NOAA, like NASA, another agency that researches and reports on climate, faces steep budget cuts under the new administration.) 2016 was the hottest year on record, just like 2015 and 2014 before it. Yet just last week, Pruitt told CNBC he disagreed that human-created carbon dioxide was a “primary contributor to global warming,” a fact that has achieved near-unanimous scientific consensus.

So while the polar ice caps melt and ocean levels rise and big oil, gas, and coal companies strive to hold on to what power they still have, Cheung and others at MIT decided to act — “aspiring,” as it says on Before It’s Too Late’s website, “to change the climate change narrative through immersive VR and unite a coalition for collective action.” And that collective action intends to go beyond political lines and include all who will listen. Cheung and her co-founders deeply maintain Before It’s Too Late is a bipartisan fight on climate change and have worked closely with both sides of the political spectrum.


Cheung’s family had emigrated to the United States when she was a child and she spent her early years moving around middle America helping her parents run their family restaurants. Growing up, Cheung constantly wrestled with pursuing her passions surrounding big societal issues and what she describes as the “traditional Asian definition” of what success looks like.

“I was told I have to get into a top Ivy school,” the 30-year-old tells We See Genius. And Cheung did just that by being accepted into The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. But the conflict between her family’s Ivy League aspirations and her personal values became even more noticeable when Cheung arrived at Penn. “It was very different from me,” she says, noting her ego took a big hit from the polished and competitive nature of Wharton.

“I was exposed to a very different type of America,” she says of her humble beginnings working in restaurants in rural Midwestern communities. “A lot of the students (at Wharton) are just so buttoned up,” Cheung continues. “It was like they were trained to go to this school. And then they breed you to think about finance and what business is all about.”

Graduating in 2009 from the world’s top feeder school to Wall Street didn’t change her outlook. But external forces beyond anyone’s control were changing the landscape into which she graduated. “We were being trained on how to do these big banking interviews. And then everything blew up,” Cheung says of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. “It was earth-shattering for a lot of students there.”

Linda Cheung. Courtesy photo


Following a five-year stint at American Express in New York City, Cheung enrolled in business school again, but this time she was looking for a career change. “The whole idea of going to business school emerged from wanting to find more meaning in my career and being bolder with my career,” she says.

After a summer as a business management intern at Florida-based renewable energy company NextEra Energy Resources, Cheung decided climate change awareness and action was her path. By the time she arrived on MIT’s Boston campus in the fall of 2016, corporate America was fully in her rearview.

“When I got back to campus, I decided, ‘All right, I’m going to totally get away from the corporate world and apply myself and really drive change through my own organization and initiative that is much more mission-focused,'” she recalls.

At the same time, she began learning more about the emerging field of interactive virtual reality (VR), and its potential to make powerful arguments appealed and intrigued her. She got together with two of MIT Sloan’s leaders in the sustainability space to explore the idea of creating empathy — and most importantly, action — through interactive VR storytelling. Hanson Gong, a former Deloitte consultant, has been instrumental in organizing the MIT Sustainability Summit, and Jennifer Ballen, a former analyst at Morgan Stanley, is behind The Sustainable Investor blog. Together, the three founded Before It’s Too Late.


Many in government and outside it are working to mold and impact climate change policy and action through legislation, regulation, and grassroots efforts. Cheung and team want to approach the issue in a different way: with a social focus.

“That’s our twist — touching people through emotions and storytelling and education and engaging them through conversation,” Cheung says.

Last September, the team began meeting with MIT professors both within and outside of the business school. The feedback was positive. Next they took their idea to organizations like and Citizen Climate Lobby. But then they did something unusual: They also reached out to conservative climate leaders.

“We were more interested in the bipartisan-based organizations and less on the super environmental left,” Cheung says. “Because we were really focused on reaching new audiences.”


The team decided to start by going straight to the American epicenter of climate change’s impending wrath: South Florida. Specifically, the mayor’s office in Miami.

The city of Miami didn’t immediately bite, but the mayor’s office of Coral Gables, a suburb directly southwest of downtown Miami, responded. After a phone call with Mayor James (Jim) Cason last December, Cheung, Ballen, and Gong flew to Miami to meet in Cason’s office and to connect with South Florida organizations doing work around climate change. They met with nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy, as well as other climate action groups and local universities.

“There is an entire regional network in South Florida that is super active (in climate change),” Cheung observes. “And I think it’s out of necessity, because they are already feeling the impacts of climate change.”

According to a year-old report from NOAA, low-lying, flood-prone Florida is more at risk than any other state for property damage and people affected by rising sea levels. This reality is already causing organized and strategic change, Cheung says. “There is an American narrative around climate change happening,” she explains, noting that the approach in South Florida is more bipartisan. “The story is around the impact and the solution, and is very motivational.”

Meeting with Major Jim Cason’s team in Coral Gables, Florida. Courtesy photo


Cheung and team thought that story should be the first to be used in their virtual reality simulation. Piggy-backing on the narrative they uncovered in South Florida and the climate change research and modeling coming from leading MIT professors John Sterman and Juliette Rooney-Varga, they are currently creating an interactive virtual reality simulation for individuals or groups, a world that extends to 2050 in which each decision made by a player impacts the final outcome.

“You experience a narrative together, and based on your decisions together, you see how different possible futures play out,” Cheung explains. “It’s powered by real data behind climate models and forecasts.”

The idea is two-fold. First, Cheung says, is to get people to empathize and connect with populations and regions that might seem distant. “Virtual reality is a very common medium for helping to visualize stories and personalize experiences and see things from different perspectives,” she says, noting that the awareness, understanding, and empathy they are aiming to create stems from hard scientific data as well as soft personalized feelings.

Cheung believes the approach is more akin to a “push” strategy, as distinguished from the “pull” strategy often used by climate activists — that is, most calls to action on the issue of climate change ask individuals to completely change their behaviors. But even if a few individuals actually install solar panels or burn less in carbon fuels, Cheung says it’s not the going to create systemic change, which is needed right now. “That’s not reasonable or smart,” she says of the “pull” strategy for individuals. “We’re not going to get to where we need to if we don’t change our system.”

That’s where the second piece come in: activating a larger collective of voices to pressure major political and business leaders to seek climate solutions.


To help push all of this forward rapidly, Cheung, Ballen, and Gong have enlisted the help of about 30 student interns from MIT, Florida International University, George Mason University, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, University of Miami, and even a German university. The teams are broken into seven categories, including data, storytelling, simulations, VR, and social science.

“We are a student-led nonprofit grassroots organization to enhance people’s awareness and action and activism on climate change issues through technology and VR,” Cheung sums the organizational structure.

The guiding light for the team, she says, continues to be reaching populations outside of the normal climate activist “choir.”

“Climate change is happening now and all of our actions are leading to it,” Cheung asserts. “We see an environment that is becoming more inviting on this issue, and now being an opportune time to transcend to the next level of moving from awareness to action and solutions.”