The making of His Holiness Pope Francis’s second TED Talk

Posted by:

His Holiness Pope Francis speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The speaker sits in front of a bookshelf, notes in hand, a deliberate tone to his voice. As we live through a pandemic and see an even bigger socio-environmental crisis quickly approaching, he says, we all face a choice: “The choice between what matters, and what doesn’t.”

That’s how His Holiness Pope Francis frames his second TED Talk, which was livestreamed on October 10, 2020 during the closing session of the Global Launch of TED’s climate initiative, Countdown

The head of the Roman Catholic Church is not new to the TED stage: he gave his first TED Talk in 2017, surprising the audience at TED’s annual conference in Vancouver via video. His acceptance to give a second TED Talk highlights his strong advocacy for action on climate change. We asked Bruno Giussani, TED’s Global Curator, who led the team that developed the Countdown program, to share the genesis of the talk.

What about the present moment made it the right time for Pope Francis to give a second TED Talk?

Bruno Giussani: In 2015, Pope Francis published an important Encyclical letter (a book) about the environment or, in his words, about “caring for our common home.” It is called Laudato Si'” (“Praise be to You”), and it received global attention. In it he put forward the concept of “integral ecology,” and wrote: “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the 21st century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.” That same year, 195 countries signed the historic Paris Agreement committing to do their part to keep the increase in global temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius and well below 2 degrees, to lower the risk of dramatic impacts of climate change

Five years later, fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes occupy the front pages. Science has never been so rich in data and so conclusive about what’s going on: we humans and our activities are changing the climate. Yet, as the data and the analysis that we have shared during Countdown show, the world is not on track to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement, and we have not really started shouldering the responsibilities the Pope wrote about. 

Pope Francis has repeatedly referenced the need for real action and advocated for science, and I have the feeling he harbors impatience for the lack of progress. Actually, just one week before the Countdown Global Launch, he published a new Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All). It is a vast analysis of the current moment, discussing the twin climate and social crises, the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the way forward, and a renewed call for solidarity as well as personal and collective responsibility. All of these themes intersect with the intentions and goals of Countdown.

What are the core messages of Pope Francis’s second TED Talk?

BG: He asks us to listen to the science. He underscores the urgency of confronting climate change and social inequity. He conveys how we won’t come out the same from the COVID-19 crisis. And he invites us to partake in what he calls “a journey of transformation and of action.”

He also voices three very concrete suggestions concerning education, access to food and water, and transitioning to clean energy sources. On the latter, he makes the case for divesting from “those companies that do not meet the parameters of integral ecology,” which I understand to mean first and foremost fossil fuel companies.

To whom is this talk addressed?

BG: As he says himself, it’s addressed to “all people of Faith, Christian or not, and all people of goodwill.”

How important is it that a major religious leader is speaking on climate change?

BG: We live in a world where everything has become politics or profit. Face masks become a political battleground and vaccines become a race for profit, to use current examples. The role of spiritual and religious leaders in social and environmental activism is to remind us of the essential values that reside above politics and profit: those of the common good, of dialogue, inclusion and compassion. 

At the end of the talk, Pope Francis speaks of the future being built “not in isolation, but rather in community and in harmony.” Over the years he has convened several gatherings of scientists, businesspeople and interfaith dialogues, and he has launched many other initiatives focused on the climate. 

Nor is this a Catholic exclusive. From the Dalai Lama to Indigenous spiritual leaders, from the Church of England to the Bahá’í, there is a lot of religious engagement for the protection of the planet and of those who live on it. In the US, there is a group of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, for instance, and in India a few years ago, a Hindu Declaration on Climate Change was issued. But it is true that the voice of Pope Francis is of particular power and resonates well beyond the confines of the Catholic Church.

How does one go about inviting the Pope to give a TED Talk?

BG: One goes through contacts established throughout the years and benefits from the generosity of people who opened doors and made introductions. Pope Francis gave his first TED Talk in 2017, so many at the Vatican are now familiar with TED. The demands on the Pope’s time are plenty, and we are enormously appreciative of his kindness in considering our invitation and in engaging with Countdown. 

How was the talk prepared? TED curators usually work closely with the speakers.

BG: We worked with several of Pope Francis’s collaborators over a period of months, discussing ideas, options and framing. In the end, of course, Pope Francis decided what he wanted to say in the talk. He was filmed by a crew from the Vatican Television Center, and then the talk was subtitled in several languages by a group of TED Translators

The Pope spoke from a private study on the ground floor of the guesthouse where he lives in Vatican City. It is a rather unpretentious building called Domus Sanctae Marthae. When he became Pope, he decided to live there instead of occupying the papal apartments above St. Peter’s Square. I believe this choice manifests a genuine preference for a simpler life. But it also sends a message: that just because things have been done a certain way in the past doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be changed. Which, of course, is a message that maps perfectly onto the climate crisis. 

Can you tell us a little about your observations of Francis, the man? Does he have a sense of humor?

BG: He certainly does. He’s warm and evidently cares for people, who they are and what they think. He’s an acute observer and quick-witted. I had the privilege to be invited, together with a couple dozen other people, to the early-morning Mass that he celebrates in the private chapel at Domus Sanctae Marthae. When I met him afterwards, he pointed out immediately that he had noticed my nodding at certain passages in his sermon. I had nodded indeed: his words related to the themes of his first TED Talk. He’s also 83 years old and carries the double weight of being the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics and at the same time the head of the Church’s complex hierarchy.