It’s great when young people take an interest in important issues, be it school bullying or racial discrimination or social justice or climate change. Take Greta Thunberg, the now world-famous 15-year-old Swedish school child whose mom and dad are vocal climate activists and very famous celebrities in Sweden on their own. In December 2018, Greta made made global headlines for her impassioned speech to U.N. climate conference caught most of the adults there by surprise.
Greta, yes, addressed, inspired and challenged the U.N.’s recently-concluded climate summit in Poland and she has increased pressure on climate issues through her world famous ”school strike against climate change” outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm.
Three cheers for Greta Thunberg.
Now let’s go back 25 years or so, to the global climate summit in Rio when a 12–year-old girl from Canada, Severn Suzuki, the daughter of Canadian climate activist David Suzuki, who also made an impassioned six-minute speech to the adults assembled there. Her short speech went viral, later went up on YouTube, and is still being watched in 2018 by thousands of people, young and old, as we speak. She became a celebrity, went to Yale, married a Canadian Haida man, gave birth to two bi-cultural children and now in her 30s still remains active in global climate discussions.
At the age of 12, she silenced the world for six minutes at the first U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Her married name is Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and she is active online on Twitter and other social media platforms. As daughter of environmental guru David Suzuki, she caught the world’s attention in 1992 and she later became an activist and environmentalist in her own right.
In 1992, Severn, just 12, addressed a room of delegates at the Rio conference, and left them all speechless.
“Our group of four Canadian kids felt it was important to go,” Cullis-Suzuki says now, reflecting on what happened then, many years later. “We figured it was going to be mostly old men, sitting around, making decisions that are going to affect our future and the future generation. So we wanted to go as the conscience — as a reminder to those decision makers, who their decisions would truly affect.”
Like Greta Thunberg’s speech in Poland, Severn’s six-minute speech revealed her fears over the state of the environment, and her concerns for generations to come.
“You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer,” she said in 1992 in Rio. “You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”
It was an intensely passionate, personal and provocative plea to the Rio delegates then, and it remains powerful even today in 2018.
Just as in the case of Greta in Poland, policy makers from around the world gave Severn a standing ovation. Then U.S. Vice President Al Gore told her she made the best speech at the summit.
At just 12 years of age, Severn was propelled onto the world stage, and became known as an environmental activist to watch.
Just as Greta, just 15, has been propelled to the world stage now and will remain the that stage for many years to come.
Today, Cullis-Suzuki might have some good advice for Greta, too.
“After that Rio speech in 1992, I began to lead two lives, one being a kid and the other starting to speak internationally about the environment and advocating for social and environmental justice. So that [speech] had a really big impact on my life.”
The video of Severn’s Rio speech has been viewed more than 20 million times online, but ask her now if she was successful, the answer isn’t easy.
“It’s hard to gauge whether you’ve had an affect in changing people’s awareness,” she told a reporter. “I think now these many years later is a good time to ask ‘have we been successful in changing the world to become more sustainable?’ I think we have not.”
Cullis-Suzuki says that more than two decades since she gave that speech in Rio, many of the world’s environmental problems are worse.
“Looking to at things now, we’re looking for solutions, for a paradigm shift. That’s what I want,” she shares. “It didn’t happen back then, we need it now.”
As Greta Thunberg grows up into her late teens and early 20s and then moves into her 30s and 40s, she too will have time to look back and reflect on what she achieved and didn’t achieve with her famous climate speech in Poland in 2018. In the future, Greta might become a novelist, a documentary film director, a TV reporter for Swedish news programs tracking climate issues. She will have plenty of things to say and we need to listen to her.
So two amazing climate activists who started out very young, one a Canadian dreamer, and the other a Swedish dreamer. If you have time, compare the online videos of their two separate speeches “to the adults in the room,” the first from 1992 and the second from 2018.
And then ask yourself this: will another young person (perhaps a girl or a boy, a person of color this time, someone from Africa or Asia or the Middle East or Alaska or Greenland or Taiwan) take the world stage in the year 2045 and deliver another impassioned climate speech to the adults in the room? And will anyone be listening then?