Next Election or Next Generation? World leaders, time to choose is NOW!

Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...
Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...
This week saw the UN’s invisible man hosting mostly indifferent leaders at a Summit on one of the world’s most pressing challenges: climate change.

Nearly 100 world leaders accepted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to participate in an historic Summit on Climate Change in New York on 22 September to mobilise political will and strengthen momentum for a fair, effective and ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen this December.

The call for action at the summit did not just come from world leaders – many of who simply can’t see beyond their next election – but also from the next generation who stand the most to lose if climate talks fail.

On their behalf, Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl, spoke forcefully at the podium, sending a wake-up call to those assembled. “We received a clean and healthy planet from our ancestors and we are gifting a damaged one to our successors. What sort of justice is this?,” she said.

She added: “The Himalayas are melting, polar bears are dying, 2 of every 5 people don’t have access to clean drinking water, earth’s temperature is increasing, we are losing the untapped information and potential of plant species, Pacific’s water level has risen,Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!”

She said the three billion young people in the world need them to take action now to protect the planet for future generations.

Watch part of her speech in this TV news story:

Read full text of her speech

Read Indian TV news channel IBN’s interview with Yugratna Srivastava just after delivering her speech.

Read Ban Ki-Moon’s summary of the Summit, delivered at its end

All this news coverage reminded me of another passionate young girl who similarly addressed – and challenged – the world leaders 17 years ago at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Her name was Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and she was a young Canadian environmental activist. Then 12-year-old Severn closed a Plenary Session with a powerful speech that received a standing ovation.

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn Cullis-Suzuki is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and environmental activist and TV personality David Suzuki. When she was 9, she started the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. They were successful in many projects before 1992, when they raised enough money to go to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio. Their aim was to remind the decision-makers of who their actions or inactions would ultimately affect.

Listen to the memorable speech at the Earth Summit by Severn Cullis-Suzuki:

Severn was every bit as sincere, concerned and passionate about the global environment as Yugratna Srivastava was this week. Seventeen years later, notwithstanding the lofty pledges at the Earth Summit and later gatherings, the environmental crises have multiplied and worsened.

Very few of the world leaders who assembled in Rio are still in office — and that underlines part of the problem. Governments have far shorter time horizons than what many of today’s global challenges demand. I am constantly reminded of what the eminent Indian scientist Dr M S Swaminathan told me in my first interview with him in 1990 (yes, even before the Earth Summit): “In democracies, rulers think in terms of the next election. In dictatorships, about the next coup d’état. Nobody is thinking in terms of the next generation!”

It was no small feat for the UN’s Invisible Man to bring 100 heads of state or heads of government together on such a long-term issue. But it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.

Read my June 2008 comment: Message to the UN on World Environment Day: Kick your own CO2 habit!

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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