Al Roker, Ford exec highlight climate change TED Talks at Countdown Summit in Detroit

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TED’s second Countdown Summit brought over 40 speakers to Detroit for TED Talks on climate change. The summit aimed to explore solutions to climate change by bringing together activists, scientists, policymakers and business executives from across the globe.

Among the summit’s speakers were former vice president Al Gore, "Today" weatherman Al Roker and Ford global director of sustainability Cynthia Williams. Topics included electric vehicles, deforestation and extreme weather events.

Thursday’s session at The Fillmore Detroit featured Roker and Williams, as well as scientists, policymakers and environmentalists. It also featured a documentary by Detroit-based producer and director Eden Sabolboro on the Anishinaabe production of maple syrup. Thursday’s session closed with a performance by Tunde Olaniran, a pop musician and performer from Flint whose creative works explore identity, injustice and empowerment.

Here are five takeaways from the event.

Ending deforestation could be key to preventing pandemics

Neil Vora considers himself an anomaly in his field; he’s a doctor who specializes in saving forests. As a physician with Conservation International, his work focuses on the threat of viruses spilling over from animals to humans — an occurrence often tied to deforestation.

In his TED Talk, Vora criticizes the reactive approach to public health and says we should focus on preventing pandemics. Many viral pandemics such as Ebola originated from animals, and there are an estimated 600,000 viruses that could potentially spill over from animals to humans, according to Vora. One way viruses could spill over is deforestation. Deforestation can lead to closer contact between human and animals, increasing the likelihood of spillovers.

“There is no human health or animal health or environmental health — they’re one and the same,” Vora said in his TED Talk.

Ecologist Ludmila Rattis speaks at the TED Countdown Summit in Detroit on July 13, 2023.
Ecologist Ludmila Rattis speaks at the TED Countdown Summit in Detroit on July 13, 2023.

Some animals naturally help combat deforestation

Ecologist Ludmila Rattis used her TED Talk to discuss the way that one species combats deforestation.

Her talk focused on tapirs, a pig-like herbivorous mammal that inhabits jungles and forests in South and Central America and Southeast Asia. In her work, she’s helped discover that an average of 733 seeds from 24 different species can be found in one tapir’s feces. As tapirs defecate, they help plant these seeds across their ecosystem. Dung beetles also help to further disperse these seeds throughout the forest.

“We know that the resilience of those ecosystems is on the diversity of plants and animals living there,” Rattis said. "Our future is intertwined with the future of those animals, and it depends on how good a job we do trying to protect them. And people, I’m not afraid to say, our future lies in poop.”

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Traditions can give us insight on how to care for crops

Louise Mabulo is working toward a sustainable path forward for chocolate production in the Philippines. Mabulo founded The Cacao Project, an organization that helps farmers build agroforests, which are sustainable agricultural systems that integrate shrubs and trees into traditional agricultural production.

In her talk, she discussed the traditions her family taught her to take care of their land and crops. Her family’s advice would sometimes seem bizarre to her, ranging from planting rocks under sweet potatoes to planting according to lunar cycles. She questioned this advice growing up, but her current work with farmers to build resilient agroforests has taught her that these traditions had scientific backing and yielded better crops.

She learned that lunar cycles are tied to insect flight activity and reproduction that result in better pollinators, and that planting rocks under root crops makes better drainage which creates an ecosystem for worms and other natural fertilizers.

“What if all of these weird stories are just kind of decades of peer-review that is passed down from grandmother to grandson, from father to daughter, in ways that they best knew how?” Mabulo said in her talk. “And maybe grandma wasn’t so crazy after all.”

Cynthia Williams, global director of sustainability at Ford Motor Company, speaks at the TED Countdown Summit in Detroit on July 13, 2023.
Cynthia Williams, global director of sustainability at Ford Motor Company, speaks at the TED Countdown Summit in Detroit on July 13, 2023.

Change shouldn’t feel like a trade-off

Williams spoke about Ford's work in the electric movie market, saying the switch to EVs should not feel like a trade-off to consumers.

To encourage customers to purchase EVs, Ford has worked to electrify their most iconic vehicles, such as the Ford F-150. Williams added that charging stations need to be plentiful and convenient for customers to want to make the switch.

“When we improve our vehicles to be more sustainable, we also have to make them better,” Williams said.

Ford has invested more than $5 billion in electric vehicle manufacturing in Tennessee. Their facilities aim to conserve and reuse water, use 100% carbon free electricity and send zero waste to landfills. The electric vehicle industry has created over 143,000 jobs for Ford in the last eight years.

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We need to leave a better world for future generations

"Today" weather anchor Al Roker has reported live from natural disasters including Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Isaac, Superstorm Sandy and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. His speech focused on how extreme weather events were fueled by climate change, threatening national security and displacing communities.

He recently became a grandfather, and now more than ever has recognized the importance of leaving behind a better world for future generations, including his granddaughter.

“It’s her world, all of our grandkids, their kids. It’s going to be their world,” Roker said. “What world are we leaving them?”

About the summit

Previous speakers at the summit included former vice president Al Gore and nonprofit leader Anika Goss on Tuesday, as well as oceanographer Susan Lozier and investment decarbonization expert Nili Gilbert on Wednesday. Friday's speakers include applied AI climate scientist Sims Witherspoon, sustainable fashion entrepreneur Josephine Philips and political economist Zainab Usman.

TED Talks from the 2023 Countdown Summit will be posted online throughout the year. TED is a nonprofit media organization that posts talks online for free distribution with the goal of spreading meaningful ideas.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Climate change TED Talks by Al Roker, Ford exec held in Detroit