TED teams with Detroit Public TV to explore responses to climate change

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Gilberto Tadday/TED

Anika Goss delivers a talk July 11 at the TED Countdown Summit.

Detroit Public Television and TED are collaborating on a documentary that explores ideas for mitigating the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes region, especially Detroit and the state of Michigan. 

The program is expected to premiere on DPTV in October and be released into national distribution in January. It draws on themes from TED’s recent Countdown Summit, an invite-only conference hosted by Detroit in July. 

TED, the nonprofit that produces conferences and media featuring talks by big thinkers, launched Countdown in 2019 as its first topic-specific initiative. The annual Countdown summits, previously held in New York City and Edinburgh, Scotland, focus on intersections between economic interests and efforts to address the climate crisis.

TED chose Detroit for this year’s event because the city exemplifies the local implications of pollution and climate justice and the broader role of the auto industry, said David Biello, science curator at TED. Biello, a veteran science journalist, previously worked with DPTV on Beyond the Light Switch, an award-winning 2011 PBS series, and The Ethanol Effect, a 2016 documentary. 

Biello speaks during a July 14 session at TED Countdown Summit.

“You have this rich industrial history that in some ways is responsible for getting us into the climate crisis through car culture and car-centered urban design of cities, and all these things that have sort of got us into the mess we find ourselves in,” Biello said. “From a climate pollution standpoint or a climate justice standpoint, frankly, Detroit has also suffered the ill effects of those choices.” 

Climate change has brought unprecedented flooding to Detroit in recent years, said Jonathan Mallow, media and impact lead for TED Countdown. He also described periodic power blackouts caused by the city’s unreliable electrical grid. 

As TED began planning the summit, Biello reached out to his DPTV contacts to explore “How could we partner? How could Detroit Public Television help get TED wired into Detroit?” he said. 

TED wanted to avoid hosting an event that would have the same effect as national media parachuting in, said Ed Moore, VP of content at DPTV. It was critical for the TED team to understand conversations about climate change already happening among the city’s communities of color, he added. 

An ‘amazing’ TED talk

Now that the summit has concluded, TED is producing a one-hour documentary featuring speakers and topical themes that emerged from the event. Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, is host. DPTV has creative input on the documentary, according to Mallow. 

Summit speakers included weather forecaster Al Roker, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former Vice President Al Gore and Laprisha Berry Daniels, executive director for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. 

Producers aim to weave together TED talks from the summit and other footage into a solutions-focused program, Moore said. Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, and Detroit’s central role in the auto industry means the city must have a voice in conversations about reducing carbon emissions. 

“The point is to say there is a real path to scaling the things we need to scale,” Mallow said. “And if we understand that that path exists, then we’re less sort of immobilized by fear. … And we can understand what kinds of actions different players in the space need to take.” 

Though the documentary is a work in progress, it will present local responses to climate impacts, Mallow said. The nonprofit Soulardarity, for example, is working to address problems with the electrical grid by harnessing solar power in Detroit and nearby metro areas. Zomorodi interviewed speaker Anika Goss, CEO of Detroit Future City, about land use, economic equity and sustainable community development — issues her nonprofit works on. 

“Anika [was] one of our first stops on the road,” Biello said. “It very quickly became clear to me that there was an amazing TED Talk on the history and future of Detroit as a place of climate justice.”

In an interview, Goss said she wasn’t fully aware of TED’s influence before she became involved in Countdown. But she recognized that her summit talk provided a platform for conveying the urgent need for mitigating climate change and arguing that greener open spaces in Detroit are as valuable as brick-and-mortar real estate. Goss went through intensive preparation for her nearly 10-minute talk, she said, reshaping it to integrate her family history and tighten talking points.

During her interview with Zomorodi for the documentary, Goss expounded on the themes from her talk. Mallow said they also visited a park that has been redeveloped as a playground with shade-giving trees and plants that absorb rainwater. 

Beautifying these open spaces helps reduce the disruptions that climate change is creating in the city’s neighborhoods, she said. “These neighborhoods are … not cast aside,” Goss said. “Not a lot of people live here, but they are beautiful places. They’re communities.”

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