Nearly 30 years ago, before the rise of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, another young girl took the podium at the United Nations to admonish world leaders for their inaction on environmental issues. It was 1992 and Severn Cullis-Suzuki, daughter of Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, was addressing the plenary session of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Frank Chung specially for the News.com.au.
Severn, along with other members of a group she had founded called the Environmental Children’s Organisation, had raised money “to come 5000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways”.
While she didn’t mention climate change, Severn touched on many similar themes as the 16-year-old Swedish activist, who delivered a fiery speech to the UN on Monday accusing world leaders of stealing her childhood and asking, “How dare you?”
A video of Severn’s famous address became a viral hit after being uploaded to YouTube in 2008 with the title, “The girl who silenced the world for five minutes”. It has since been viewed nearly 32 million times.
In it, she described being “afraid to breathe the air” or go out in the sun, warned of mass extinctions of plants and animals and urged rich nations to stop spending so much money on war and “let go of some of our wealth”.
Severn, now 39, is still a prominent environmental activist, speaker, TV host and author. In 2017, she and her friends from ECO marked the 25th anniversary of their Rio trip by encouraging young people to film their own take on “I’m only a child, but …”
She now describes climate change as the “ultimate example of an intergenerational crime” and supports Greta, whose School Strike For Climate has gone from a lone protest outside Swedish parliament to a global youth movement in the space of a year.
“My heart is so full,” she wrote in an Instagram post celebrating last Friday’s marches. “The youth are showing the world how to take action. Demanding transformation now. Human change not climate change.”
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI’S 1992 UN SPEECH:
“We are a group of 12 and 13-year-olds trying to make a difference. We’ve raised all the money to come here ourselves, to come 5000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways.
“Coming up here today I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go.
“I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the hole in our ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it. I used to go fishing in Vancouver, my home, with my dad, until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers. And now we hear of animals and plants going extinct. Every day, vanishing forever.
“In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rainforests full of birds and butterflies. But now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry of these things when you were my age? All of this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions.
“I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise neither do you. You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer, you don’t how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream, you don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct, and you can’t bring back the forest that once grew where there is now a desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.
“Here, you may be delegates of your governments, businesspeople, organisers, reporters or politicians, but really, you’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, and all of you are someone’s child. I am only a child yet I know we are all part of a family, five billion strong. In fact, 30 million species strong. And borders and governments will never change that.
“I am only a child yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal. In my anger, I am not blind, and in my fear I am not afraid of telling the world how I feel. In my country we make so much waste, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, buy and throw away and yet northern countries will not share with the needy. Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to let go of some of our wealth.
“In Canada, we live the privileged life with plenty of food, water and shelter. We have watches, bicycles, computers and television sets, the list could go on for two days. Two days ago here in Brazil we were shocked when we spent time with some children living on the streets. This is what one child told us: ‘I wish I was rich. And if I were I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicines, shelter, and love and affection.’ If a child on the streets who has nothing is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy?
“I can’t stop thinking that these are children my own age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born, that I could be one of those children living in the favelas of Rio, I could be a child starving in Somalia or a victim of war in the Middle East or a beggar in India. I am only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers, ending poverty and finding treaties, what a wonderful place this earth would be.
“At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? Do not forget why you are attending these conferences, who you are doing this for. We are your own children. You are deciding what kind of a world we are growing up in.
“Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying, ‘Everything’s going to be all right, it’s not the end of the world, and we’re doing the best we can’. But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My dad always says, ‘You are what you do, not what you say’. Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, make your actions reflect your words. Thank you.”