Dispatch from Rio+20: Next Election or Next Generation?

Text of my news feature published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 22 June 2012

Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressing Earth Summit in Rio, June 1992

Next Election or Next Generation?
By Nalaka Gunawardene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Twenty years ago, a passionate young girl addressed – and challenged – the world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

They called it the speech that stopped the world for six minutes. All the platitudes and rhetoric of heads of state are long forgotten, but this speech endures. It has been viewed million of times online.

Her speech was uncluttered and sincere. “I am only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realize neither do you…If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”

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

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and environmental activist turned 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 did various local projects and in 1992, raised enough money to go to the Rio Earth Summit. Their wanted to remind the world leaders that the future of all children – indeed, all future generations – were going to be impacted by decisions made at the Summit.

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

Two decades on, another young girl from the Asia Pacific earned her chance to address Rio+20, the follow up to the original Summit, this time with the theme ‘The Future We Want’

As it opened on the morning of 20 June 2012, Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old school girl from New Zealand, spoke truth to power.

Brittany Trilford at Rio+20 conference on 20 June 2012

Addressing over 130 heads of state from around the world, assembled in Rio Centro conference centre, she said: “Please ask yourselves why you are here. Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”

Brittany won an international competition to earn her five minutes of fame. The ‘Date with History Contest’ was a global online search for a person under 30 to represent youth and future generations at Rio+20.

Organised by the Global Campaign for Climate Action, Climate Nexus and the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), contest participants were asked to upload a 2 to 3 minute short video speech about the future they wanted.

After entries closed in early May 2012, online voting was allowed for 22 finalists – which included at least 3 from each region of the world. The final winner was chosen by an international panel that included environmentalists, UN officials and celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Brittany Trilford addresses world leaders at the UN Earth Summit

Brittany is a final year student attending school in Wellington, New Zealand. In her winning entry, she wished for more innovation and imagination.

“One solution would be to change our education system to embrace creativity and innovation. To tackle our problems there are definitely out there. Our leaders have to listen, be open-minded and persistent enough to give these ideas a chance,” she said.

As she ended the speech: “I want a future where education encourages innovative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship. I want a future where we run with natural processes and not against them. I want a future where leaders will stop talking and start acting. I want a future where leaders lead.”

Her video was filmed at home with basic camera equipment. As she explained, “I entered to show solidarity with youth around the world, demanding that our leaders remember we are all their children and they owe us a fighting chance at a future we want to inherit.”

In a poignant media event hours before the Summit opened, the star of 1992 Severn Cullis-Suzuki joined the winner of 2012, Brittany Trilford.

Severn is now a writer and activist on culture and environmental issues, as well as the mother of two young boys.

“I have grown up a lot these 20 years but those six minutes of speaking to the UN two decades ago remains the most powerful thing I have ever done in my life to affect people,” she said wistfully.

Shortly after arriving in Rio – her first time since 1992 – Severn addressed a group of young delegates working with Green Cross International, the global environmental group created by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Severn’s message today remains the same, but now she also thinks about the future of her own children. She returned to Rio on their behalf to appeal for solutions to issues like global climate change which she called an “inter-generational crime”.

The world’s children have spoken loud and clear, twice over. But will they be heard by the world’s governments – preoccupied with multiple crises and more concerned about staying on in office.

Will the next generation prevail over the next election?

How can scientists use web videos to communicate climate science?

Let’s face it: not every scientist is a potential David Attenborough, David Suzuki or Carl Sagan. Such supernovae are rare in any field.

But in this digital age, most scientists can use online platforms and simple digital tools to communicate directly with the public and/or policy makers. At least some scientists try to tap this potential — and we are grateful.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a respected non-profit research and advocacy group, is currently trying to understand “how recent climate science discoveries can best be communicated via video”.

With support from Google, and with the help of three climate scientists, WRI has recently produced 3 different video types in order to test which works best. They are currently on display on their website, with a request for readers to vote and comment:

1. “A webcam talk” uses a self-recorded video of the scientist discussing his findings

2. “A conversation” uses a slideshow with a voiceover of the scientist discussing his findings

3. “A whiteboard talk” is a professionally shot video of the scientist in front of whiteboard discussing his findings

Here is the comment I submitted: the challenges WRI face are common and widely shared. And I do have some experience covering climate and other complex science and environmental stories across Asia for the visual and print media.

First, thanks for asking — and for exploring best public engagement method, which most technical experts and their organisations don’t bother to do.

Second, Andy Dessler comes across as an eager expert — not all scientists are! Some are visibly condescending and disdainful in doing ‘public’ talks that they immediately put off non-technical audiences.

Third, the options you’ve presented above are NOT mutually exclusive. For best results, you can mix them.

Webcam method is helpful, but people don’t want to see any talking head for more than a few seconds at a time. They want to see WHO is talking, and also WHAT is being talked about. The images in Conversation method come in here.

I realise webcams are usually set up inside buildings, but visually speaking the more interesting backdrops are in the open. In this case, if Andy Dessler were to record his remarks outdoors, on a clear and sunny day with some clouds in the far background sky, that would have been great!

I’m personally less convinced about Whiteboard Talk: many in your audience probably don’t want to be lectured to, or be reminded of college days. I would avoid that.

More about my work at http://www.tveap.org/

WED 2010: Saving the Planet, one human mind at a time…

Race to save the Planetary Ark: How are we doing?

Today was World Environment Day (WED), and this year’s theme was biodiversity. The slogan read: Many Species, One Planet, One Future.

Different people observed the day in many and varied ways. Each one is valid, useful and purposeful.

I don’t believe in tokenistic tree planting. In fact, I’ve never planted more than a tree or two all my life – and honesty, I don’t know what happened to those hapless saplings after I deposited them gently and eagerly into a little hole in the ground…

Instead, I’m committed to a longer term effort: raising a single child as a single parent, trying to make her more caring for the planet, its limited natural resources and its people. I’m hoping that this would prove to be a lot more planet-friendly and worthwhile than a whole lot of trees planted and then abandoned…

As David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist and my favourite broadcaster, has said: “Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles.”

This is precisely the premise of Saving the Planet, the six-part, pan-Asian TV series we at TVE Asia Pacific produced and released in late 2009. It was among the compilation of environmental films that we screened at the British Council Colombo today to mark WED.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet.

Here are two stories that have a particular focus on biodiversity – all others have also been featured on this blog over the past few months (just run a search for ‘Saving the Planet’).

Cambodia: Floating the Future

The people of Prek Toal have always known how closely their lives and jobs are linked to the ebb and flow of the Tonlé Sap lake, the largest in Cambodia and linked to the Mekong River. Now, the conservation group Osmose is showing how they can benefit from the lake’s fish and other natural resources without killing off the very ecosystem that sustains them. One strategy that works: to reach out to grown-ups through their children.

Thailand: Smile Again!

Tourists are astounded by the richness and diversity of Thailand’s natural heritage. But many Thai children and youth are not connected with Nature – they are not familiar with plants and animals even in their own backyard. Concerned, the Thai Education Foundation launched a programme that links schools with their local community to learn about Nature through exposure and experience. We travel to Phang Nga province in southern Thailand to find out this works.