Impact of Ideas TED Talks

10 years of changing views on climate change, in TED Talks

10 years after Al Gore gave his eye-opening TED Talk about global warming, the UN's Christiana Figueres described the first global effort to fight it. Photo: Bret Hartman

10 years after Al Gore gave his eye-opening TED Talk about global warming, the UN’s Christiana Figueres described the first global effort to fight it. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

On July 27, 2006, the first six TED Talks were posted online. Among them was Al Gore’s talk at TED2006, “Averting the climate crisis,” given a few months before the release of his groundbreaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth. With the release of the film, climate change stormed into public awareness. Fast-forward to 2016 and things have changed a lot, for both the discussion around climate change and TED.com. Both have grown and evolved in ways that would have been impossible to predict back in 2006.

When Al Gore took the stage at TED2006, there was little public discussion or even awareness of climate change. In fact, An Inconvenient Truth was so instrumental in making people aware of climate change that scientists actually study its impact. But the conversation in 2006 was very different than the doomsday-scenario, polarized discussions we sometimes hear today. It was casual and calm, and the solutions at the heart of the talk weren’t big or grandiose. They didn’t involve terraforming a new planet or growing baby corals to rebuild reefs or locking seeds away deep in a Norwegian mountain. They were simple, the kind you might put on a pamphlet: Buy a hybrid, consume and invest consciously, calculate your carbon footprint, reduce-reuse-recycle. That’s not to say these are not important steps, they are, but listening to the conversation in 2006, there isn’t the same sense of urgency that comes later. And in fact, the primary message is not about a particular solution, it’s about raising awareness. “Become a catalyst of change. Teach others, learn about it, talk about it,” urged Gore. (Jill Sobule added her voice to the 2006 conversation with the lighthearted song “Manhattan in January.”) The public conversation was in its infancy, and before we could focus on making serious change, we needed to get the word out …

2007-2008: Quiet period

… which takes time. In 2007, there’s a TED salon called “Hot Science” to dig further into climate and energy science, but otherwise TED Talks goes relatively quiet on climate change. We posted 8 talks on climate change in 2007 (though some were filmed before 2007, before we had a website to put them on), and in 2008, we posted just 2 talks on climate change, including a follow-up talk from the newly minted Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. The lull in coverage is reflective of the larger public and political conversation, or lack thereof. As Gore noted in his 2008 talk, “The top journalists for NBC asked 956 questions in 2007 of the presidential candidates. Two of them were about the climate crisis. ABC: 844 questions, two about the climate crisis. Fox: two. CNN: two. CBS: zero.”

Even harder than getting people to talk was getting them to care, he said. “There has been progress, but here is the key: when given a list of challenges to confront, global warming is still listed at near the bottom. What is missing is a sense of urgency. If you agree with the factual analysis, but you don’t feel the sense of urgency, where does that leave you?”

At this point, the real problem rested not with science–the evidence was strong–it rested with the public and policymakers.

2009: How can we help inspire the public to care?

In 2009, James Balog shared images from his Extreme Ice Survey, a photographic-scientific endeavour that showcased the role of art in getting people to care about climate: “In the Extreme Ice Survey, we’re dedicated to … merging art and science to the end of helping us understand nature and humanity’s relationship with nature better.” His goal: make climate change feel tangible to people. The problem is so abstract that it can be difficult to motivate people around something that feels so, well, distant. But being able to see it. Well, that changes everything.

“Ice is the canary in the global coal mine. It’s the place where we can see and touch and hear and feel climate change in action. Climate change is a really abstract thing in most of the world. Whether or not you believe in it is based on your sense of, Is it raining more or is it raining less? Is it getting hotter or is it getting colder? What do the computer models say about this, that and the other thing? All of that, strip it away. In the world of the arctic and alpine environments, where the ice is, it’s real and it’s present. The changes are happening. They’re very visible. They’re photographable. They’re measurable.”

(Other TED Talks have echoed this sentiment, the role of art in creating action and change on the part of the populace. For more talks like this, check out: Zaria Forman, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and Chris Jordan.)

In 2009, we posted 9 talks on climate change, a 350% increase. The talks are varied. James Balog and Yann Arthus-Bertrand touched on the role of art, Cary Fowler shared a radical idea on how to protect ourselves and our plants, and Jane Poynter and Lewis Pugh shared two extraordinary awareness-raising experiences. The conversation has grown from its roots. There is a growing awareness that this touches all of our lives, all of our fields, and the way we talk about it has greatly expanded and will continue to over the following years. Climate change is no longer just about science or energy. It’s about art and social justice and philosophy–everything under the sun. The urgency, the care — it’s starting.

2010-2012: A lull, and then some tough love

But the momentum slackens for a moment after 2009. In 2010, we posted only 4 talks and in 2011, zero talks specifically on climate (though climate change is mentioned in lots of talks both years). In 2012 the momentum returns — but more important even than the number of talks we posted is how the tone of the conversation changes. There’s no gentleness anymore. There’s tough love, shake-you-awake kind of talks. The talks emphasize the severity of the situation and underscore that we need to do something about this.

At TED2012, climate scientist James Hansen said, “This path, if continued, guarantees that we will pass tipping points leading to ice sheet disintegration that will accelerate out of control of future generations. A large fraction of species will be committed to extinction. And increasing intensity of droughts and floods will severely impact breadbaskets of the world, causing massive famines and economic decline. Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth.”

There’s also a move away from the mentality that it will only take simple changes within our existing economic framework. Instead, we start to share a realization that this will take immense change and action on the part of everyone at every level. As Paul Gilding said in 2012, “the idea that we can smoothly transition to a highly efficient, solar-powered, knowledge-based economy transformed by science and technology so that nine billion people can live in 2050 a life of abundance and digital downloads is a delusion. It’s not that it’s not possible to feed, clothe and house us all and have us live decent lives. It certainly is. But the idea that we can gently grow there with a few minor hiccups is just wrong, and it’s dangerously wrong, because it means we’re not getting ready for what’s really going to happen.”

2012-now: Acceptance and urgency

Between 2012 and 2015, the conversation continues. There’s a growing sense of acceptance and understanding, and with that comes fear and urgency. There are a lot of calls to action — along with growing frustration and despair at our lack of action. We’re there, but we’re not quite there. It’s an interesting time because there’s a lot of thought being given to climate change and growing understanding, but a complete inability to get anything done about it. It’s like there’s this sense of urgency but we are unable to harness it, or it hasn’t yet reached a tipping point.

Throughout these years, talks ranged from the firm, hopeful and practical in 2012…

“It’s up to us to look at our homes and our communities, our vulnerabilities and our exposures to risk, and to find ways to not just survive, but to thrive, and it’s up to us to plan and to prepare and to call on our government leaders and require them to do the same, even while they address the underlying causes of climate change. There are no quick fixes. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. We’re all learning by doing.” (Vicki Arroyo)

…to the more ominous in 2014:

“the world as a whole is moving far too slowly. We’re not cutting emissions in the way we should. We’re not managing those structural transformations as we can. The depth of understanding of the immense risks of climate change are not there yet. The depth of understanding of the attractiveness of what we can do is not there yet. We need political pressure to build. We need leaders to step up. We can have better growth, better climate, a better world. We can make, by managing those two transformations well, the next 100 years the best of centuries. If we make a mess of it, we, you and me, if we make a mess of it, if we don’t manage those transformations properly, it will be, the next 100 years will be the worst of centuries.” (Lord Nicholas Stern)

Come 2015, a big shift occurs. Rather than talking about climate change happening in some distant, uncertain future, we see people talking about it as something that is happening now. As the president of the island nation of Kiribati, Anote Tong, said at Mission Blue II in 2015, ”What many people do not understand is they think climate change is something that is happening in the future. Well, we’re at the very bottom end of the spectrum. It’s already with us. We have communities who already have been dislocated. They have had to move, and every parliament session, I’m getting complaints from different communities asking for assistance to build seawalls, to see what we can do about the freshwater lens because it’s being destroyed. In my trips to the different islands, I’m seeing evidence of communities which are now having to cope with the loss of food crops, the contamination of the water lenses, and I see these communities perhaps leaving, having to relocate, within five to 10 years.”

Mentally, that’s a big shift. It dashes whatever delusions people held about averting climate change, and it makes the threat seem more imminent. Plus, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s much easier to care when the problem is going to affect us directly rather than the unnamed, unborn generations of the future. Alice Bows-Larkin put it well when she said, “So we have a choice. We can either choose to start to take climate change seriously, and significantly cut and mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions, and then we will have to adapt to less of the climate change impacts in future. Alternatively, we can continue to really ignore the climate change problem. But if we do that, we are also choosing to adapt to very much more powerful climate impacts in future. We’re making that choice on behalf of others as well. But the choice that we don’t have is a no-climate-change future.”

As we’ve seen, the buildup to 2016 was slow and painstaking, but TED Talks help illustrate how far we have come. In 2006, we posted 3 talks on climate change, but in 2016 so far we have posted 11. As a global community, we’ve gained urgency and momentum. We have gone through a dark period where it seemed unlikely we would ever act, but in 2016 we hear for the first time strains of optimism and concrete hope. That optimism is important.

For years, we have heard speakers reiterate their frustration: We know this is happening, but there’s no urgency to act. That urgency and momentum has been building. What was needed next was a way to harness that urgency, and Christiana Figueres found the key: optimism. That key would culminate in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Now

So, when Al Gore took the stage again in 2016, a decade after his first talk, we had come a long way. It is just the start, the tip of the iceberg to solving this problem — but what a step from where we have been. As he says,  “Paris really was a breakthrough; some of the provisions are binding and the regular reviews will matter a lot. But nations aren’t waiting, they’re going ahead. China has already announced that starting next year, they’re adopting a nationwide cap-and-trade system. They will likely link up with the European Union. The United States has already been changing. All of these coal plants were proposed in the next 10 years and canceled. All of these existing coal plants were retired. We are moving forward. Last year — if you look at all of the investment in new electricity generation in the United States, almost three-quarters was from renewable energy, mostly wind and solar. We are solving this crisis. The only question is: how long will it take to get there?”

As these talks show, the road from awareness to concerted action (and the faintest glimmer of a solution) has not been easy. It’s been frustrating and scary with a strong helping of denial and pessimism. But they all share one commonality: an iron-strong belief that in our darkest hour, we can shine. Here’s to hoping that our next ten years of talks on climate change will show that to be true.