TED Countdown Summit 2023 kicked off in Detroit, Michigan, with a wide-ranging, solution-filled session of TED Talks and performances meant to inspire action on the world’s toughest challenge: climate change. Over the course of four days, the Summit seeks to change the conversation on climate change and tell a new, true story about how a bright, clean, just, environmentally bountiful world isn’t just possible — it’s already here.
The event: Talks from Session 1 of TED Countdown Summit 2023, hosted by TED’s Lindsay Levin and David Biello with journalist Orlando P. Bailey
When and where: Tuesday, July 11, 2023, at the Fillmore Detroit in Detroit, Michigan
Speakers: Simon Stiell, Julio Friedmann, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Changhua Wu, Paul Hawken, Anika Goss, Al Gore, Maxim Timchenko
Music: Detroit Youth Choir rocked the house with an energetic performance of “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” by Panic! At The Disco and “Believer” by Imagine Dragons, putting their creative skills and talents on full display.
Transformational climate action is closer than we think, says Simon Stiell, who leads the UNFCCC — the UN’s entity supporting the global response to climate change. Drawing a parallel to the meteoric growth of text messaging in the 1990s and 2000s, Stiell outlines why climate action is set up to transition from a linear to exponential pace — so long as each of us applies our particular skill sets to push the world towards its “green tipping points.” “If you act, the exponential change that is needed will happen,” he says.
How do we meet the energy needs of 10 billion people — sustainably and affordably? According to carbon removal expert Julio Friedmann, there are three key ingredients to cooking up a bright, clean future for everyone: infrastructure (think: transmission lines, roads and seaports) to make energy accessible; globally aligned (and actually affordable) innovation, like turning electricity into fuel; and more systemic, multi-tiered investment strategies on a global level. “Collective action, building together, is what makes the difficult possible and nourishes the soul through mission and purpose,” he says.
The Biden Administration has set the ambitious goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. But the US still gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s famous “moonshot” speech in 1962, the Biden Administration is now funding “Earthshots” to accelerate breakthroughs in abundant, affordable and reliable clean energy solutions. If the US is going to meet its climate goals, slashing emissions isn’t enough, says soil scientist and national science leader Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. That’s why her team at the Department of Energy is working to employ new technologies, inspired by organic carbon-capture, to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
Policy analyst Changhua Wu says that today China is undergoing a green revolution. The country has accelerated electric vehicle adoption, increased usage of solar and other renewables (with the goal of producing one kilowatt of solar energy per capita by 2030) and is promoting a circular economy that recycles raw materials to enable sustainable growth. To avoid climate catastrophe, Wu says, the US should moderate its foreign policy and learn from China’s efforts to promote sustainability on a massive scale.
Activists are leading the charge into a sustainable future, but their work is never easy and rarely fully appreciated. After being invited to speak at TED Countdown Summit, environmental activist Hong Hoang (a winner of TED Idea Search: Southeast Asia 2022) was detained in her native Vietnam for her efforts to call global attention to Vietnam’s environmental abuses. Before a moment of silence in her honor, TED shared Hoang’s Idea Search submission video, where she emphasized the need her create climate activism in politically challenging contexts.
We pay plenty of attention to the role industry plays in the destruction of our ecosystems and in the emission of greenhouse gasses. But what about the role of industrial agriculture? According to environmentalist Paul Hawken, industrial agriculture (the “fossil food industry,” as he calls it) is the world’s biggest culprit in environmental degradation. Modern factory farms reduce the nutritional content of soil, encourage erosion, ooze toxic runoff and kill off microbial fungi that naturally sequester carbon. Hawken paints a picture of a transition to regenerative agriculture: farming that embraces ancient techniques to renew the soil and insure fertility for generations. He explains how it would create farms that soak up more water, nurture healthier crops and recreate habitats for indigenous species — restoring biodiversity and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.
Climate change tests the social and economic fabric of cities like Detroit with rising temperatures that stretch power grids and “500-year” floods that leave mold and destruction in their wake. City visionary Anika Goss says financial stability is critical for Detroit’s survival in the face of the mounting climate crisis, and that the city must rebuild resilience in order to protect its citizens, who are overwhelmingly people of color already facing social inequity. By fostering entrepreneurship, restoring infrastructure and reviving abandoned urban spaces, she believes Detroit can overcome the unique challenges posed by the collapse of its manufacturing sector, creating thriving neighborhoods that embrace justice, sustainability and social connectivity.
Fossil fuel companies claim to be in favor of climate-friendly solutions, but do their efforts have any real impact? Nobel Laureate and climate advocate Al Gore returns to the TED Countdown stage to break down the data proving that the greed of fossil fuel executives has thwarted their attempts to support climate action. He reveals two obstacles to lowering global emissions — namely, how oil and gas companies deliberately slow down global efforts to move capital away from fossil fuels, and the ineffectiveness of carbon capture technology — and reminds everyone that “the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”
Ukrainian energy executive Maxim Timchenko shares how DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, has diversified the country’s power structures to survive Russian attacks, highlighting the resilience of renewable energy (such as wind turbines, which are a smaller, more difficult target for bombers). He outlines how they’ve expanded renewable energy production throughout the war with Russia, becoming a testing ground in the global fight against climate change and the future of energy independence.