TEDx Exeter and the Plague

TEDx Exeter’s virtual climate change show was worthy but off-target

It could have been a spam tsunami.  An email arriving in my inbox inviting me to a virtual “Countdown” complete “with special guest”. Had Channel 4 found my dotcom address and was it now assaulting me with come-hither puffs for its programmes?

Closer inspection revealed the email to be an invitation to something altogether less frivolous. This particular Countdown turned out to be “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action”. Developed under the TED talks banner, the Countdown with which I was being encouraged to engage was produced by TEDx Exeter, and the “special guest” was none other than Exeter City Council’s ubiquitous Chief Executive – and, as the host reminded us, Growth Director – Karime Hassan.

TEDx Exeter’s website explains that “Countdown is a year-long focus on climate change led by TED and a coalition of leaders, activists, scientists and businesses around the world. Countdown will launch on 10 October and culminate in a climate summit in Edinburgh in October 2021 amplified though local TEDx events around the world – including us, here in Exeter – leading to COP 26 in October 2021”

And so, three days after the launch, on 13 October at 7.30pm TEDx Exeter’s contribution was sent off down the slipway by its curator, Claire Kennedy. It was of course Covid-proofed in the sense that the audience had to log in remotely and was a Covid-substitute in the sense that TEDx Exeter’s live programme had been cancelled. As the host Ms Kennedy highlighted how well up the curve Exeter was by referencing the city council’s Climate Emergency declaration and its adoption of the Net-Zero-Exeter-by-2030 plan. She was thrilled that Karime Hassan was present, though modestly did not mention that their mutual admiration extended to him appointing her to the shadowy but presumably influential Liveable Exeter Place Board.

After inviting Mr Hassan to reflect on how things stood (“living from day to day”), Ms Kennedy then opened the show, to be made up of a series of little films. The first of these focussed on a breakfast-TV style couple who explained that the issue was all very simple: we were sending up too many carbon emissions.  They followed that lightbulb moment with the statement that today was a day we would all remember for the rest of our lives. Can anyone devise an effective and realistic method of measuring the delivery of that somewhat threatening promise?

We, the dispersed audience of some 200 (according to Ms Kennedy), were then treated to a series of talking heads, owned generally by idealistic and committed young people from around the world, explaining what they, their communities, their countries had been doing to stop the planet reaching the climate tipping point. At intervals, notice boards appeared, including one which simply said “Meat”.  It was not explained whether this was to stimulate a carnivore’s guilt trip (it failed) or a reminder of what the production crew wanted in their sandwiches.

The final young person spoke to us in what might have been blank verse, accompanied by dramatic muzak. Her performance left Ms Kennedy, in her own words, “speechless”, though this was clearly not the case since she immediately went on to introduce some examples of local action closer to home.

The first of these came not from Exmouth but from the Netherlands. It involved removing all petrol and diesel vehicles from central Amsterdam by 2030. Next up was the Future Generations Commissioner in Wales, who announced she was a mum of 5 and the only Future Generations commissioner in the world. She has 4 well-being criteria against which she tests everything and has persuaded the Welsh Government to stop building motorways. A Welsh county had also seconded a public health person from the local health board to the council to help see transport planning through a different lens. Wales, be warned – no different lens has been apparent at Devon County Council, even though the head of transport planning reports to the director of public health.

No climate change event would be whole, or at least wholesome, without Al Gore who popped up for a few minutes to promote his programme for training young leaders for the climate change movement. Which poses the question, why are we only doing this now?

There were two propositions that recurred throughout the show: that we only had 10 years to act, and that we had to focus on saving society rather than the planet. How widely these premises are shared was sadly not explored.

 A few more short films followed, including one from Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, the saviour of the Paris climate agreement, who described us as “the farmers of the future” with no right to give up the climate struggle. And then it was time for the special guest.

Ms Kennedy asked Karime Hassan if the 2030 target for net zero Exeter was realistic. Mr Hassan said he was an optimist but elegantly declined to answer the question. Finance was at the root of everything, citing the challenges of upscaling successful small retrofit housing projects such as Chestnut Avenue. Since Exeter had the knowledge base for clean growth, there was no reason why we couldn’t lead the innovators and scoop up the accompanying funding.

When asked what citizens could do, Mr Hassan suggested that we could be more understanding of our councillors when they take action that doesn’t work out as intended. Given that our city council tends to prefer writing plans to taking action, this was perhaps not as big an ask as it sounded. He concluded by saying that climate change was a much bigger danger than Covid-19, a welcome statement of perspective.

Summing up in full gush mode, Ms Kennedy thanked Mr Hassan for giving up his valuable time and assured him that “the whole city is behind you”, although exactly what we were supposed to be behind was far from clear. She promised that a series of Countdown events prepared by TEDx Exeter for 2021 would be announced in due course.

TEDx Exeter is by many accounts highly regarded in the TED world. It seems at its best when applying its pre-Plague format of speakers standing in a spotlight, talking knowledgeably about real innovations that will advance the quality of our lives. It’s not a good vehicle for the mass communication of difficult issues, and that’s where this Countdown show should be counted down. It would be interesting to know how many of the 200-odd audience learned anything new during the 90 minutes; it seems unlikely that the people the climate change activists really need to reach would have tuned in.

Perhaps one post-Plague action is for councillors to be given a brief and get out there holding public meetings and discussions in their wards. There is no substitute, ever, for face to face multi-way communication. And if they stick to explaining the challenges – one of Ms Kennedy’s filmed speakers had some scary graphs – rather than promising that the city council will sort it, then the rest of us can’t fault them for over-promising, and Mr Hassan will be happy.

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