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?

Advertisements

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!