At age 9, Severn Cullis-Suzuki founded the Environmental Children’s Organization with a group of friends who, like her, were committed to learning about global climate change and teaching others about it. In 1992 at age 12, Severn addressed the world’s first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where she gave a speech that became known as “Six Minutes that Silenced the World”. She won a standing ovation and international attention. Twenty years later, she returned to Rio to address the United Nations’ International Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20. You can see videos of her talks here and here. The following are the transcript of her 1992 speech and excerpts from an interview at Rio+20 with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now.
Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro (1992) — Hello, I am Severn Suzuki speaking for E.C.O – the Environmental Children’s Organization. We are a group of 12 and 13 year-olds trying to make a difference, Vanessa Suttie, Morgan Geisler, Michelle Quigg and me. We’ve raised all the money to come here ourselves, to come 5,000 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 holes 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 a 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 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 realize, neither do you. You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer. You don’t know 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, business people, organizers, 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’m only a child, yet I know we are all part of a family, 5 billion strong, in fact 30 million species strong. And borders and governments will never change that. I’m 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 share, we are afraid to let go of some of our wealth. In Canada, we live the privileged life. We’ve plenty of food, water and shelter. We have watches, bicycles, computers and television sets. The list could go on for 2 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 street 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. And 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 in 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 to not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others and 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 is going to be alright, it’s not the end of the world, and we are 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.
United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), Rio de Janeiro (June 2012) — AMY GOODMAN: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then at the age of 12 delivering her famous address at the 1992 first U.N. Earth Summit that took place in Rio de Janeiro. The video of her address has more than 21 million views on YouTube. Well, now Severn is back in Rio, this time as a veteran international environmental campaigner and mother of two.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! That was 1992. Can you talk about what has happened in the intervening 20 years? Do you feel that there has been real progress now at this summit, Severn?
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: Twenty years have passed, and everybody wants to know what have we done, how have we progressed. Well, last week, scientists released a report in the academic journal Nature that suggested that we are pushing for a tipping point in the earth’s biosphere, that we are attacking our ecosystems that sustain us and all life on this earth, in so many ways, on so many levels, that we are pushing for a state shift like what was seen 12,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. But this time it will be human-caused, and it will be orders of magnitude faster than the thousand-year transition that happened last time. I mean, that report, released on the eve of this world summit, is clear that we have not achieved the sustainable world we knew we needed 20 years ago.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Severn, yet the draft agreement that is being proposed at this summit, somebody did an analysis of the verbs in that agreement and found that the word “encourage” appeared 50 times, and the word “support” appeared 99 times, but “must” only three times and “we will” only five times. So, in the face of this looming crisis, does it give you much hope at all that the world leaders are couching this agreement in such weak terms?
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: They called Rio+10 in Johannesburg “Rio-Minus-10” because already the world leaders were starting to backtrack on an agreement from Rio 1992 that now looks like this amazing, visionary success. And, I mean, I am ashamed to hear that the Canadian negotiating team was trying their best to omit the word “commit.” So I wonder how many times that actually made it through in the draft that we have today.
I think that this is indicative of what is happening in our world at large. There is so much shift right now. We have economic meltdown around the world. We have social unrest. We have revolution just boiling up all over the planet. And now we have our national leaders that are hunkering down more and more, defending their national interests, and less and less looking for the good of humanity. I believe we have a crisis in governance. This is showing that the world’s leaders are not able to come together and lead for the sake of humanity. What does it mean when the world’s elected leaders do not represent the good of the people that they’re supposed to care for?
AMY GOODMAN: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, especially for young people who are listening and watching right now all over the world — we have a room full of interns that we are celebrating today, the summer interns who have begun at Democracy Now! — talk about how it was you who ended up giving this speech 20 years ago at the age of 12. How did you end up addressing world leaders?
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: Well, it was an incredibly grassroots initiatives. I had started a club, and this was really a group of girls who really wanted to do something for the planet in the broadest terms. And how we started was, well, we needed to educate ourselves. When I was nine, we started this club, called ourselves ECO, the Environmental Children’s Organization. We built on very small projects like beach cleanups, basic support for other environmental groups. And finally, we heard about the Earth Summit, after a few years of this, and decided we wanted to go. It’s a very long story. We galvanized support from our community, our parents, our teachers, our friends, fundraised the money, got here, and then, in a sea of 30,000 people here, we started getting our message out because we were young. And this is the key.
Twenty years later, the world is still talking about a speech, a six-minute speech that a 12-year-old gave to world leaders. Why? It is because the world is hungry to hear the truth, and it is nowhere articulated as well as from the mouths of those with everything at stake, which is youth. Today’s youth will spend their entire—the rest of their entire lives, their entire adult lives—my children will grow up in a time characterized by climate change, characterized by social unrest and refugees and all kinds of problems that that brings, because of the ecological crisis that we now find ourselves in. The economic crisis, that’s what everybody’s talking about, but really it is a subsystem within the ecological crisis of this planet earth that is our home.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: The British journalist George Monbiot said yesterday that it’s just—it’s quite staggering to see the president, Democrat leader, Obama, backtracking on commitments that George Bush Sr. made in 1992. It really points to the shift politically that we’ve come to in 20 years. The realm of what is politically possible is totally on the side of the right, and it’s on the side of exploiting the natural resources of the planet as fast as it possibly can, and on a budget and on a scale that dwarfs its opposition.
You know, I’m here in Rio, and there’s so many people, so many young people, who are going through the tracks that have been presented to them to have their voices heard. And they’ve been lobbying, and they’ve been following all the negotiations, and they’ve been staying up ’til 2:00 a.m., and they put their heart and soul into the document and the declaration, because they have good faith that this process works and it matters. And we are seeing, from the lack of interest in this global summit from our world leaders, and in the inability to decide—to decide on anything, on saying anything, that this system is broken, it does not work. And I think the Keystone XL, as well as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which is proposed from Alberta to the coast—I think we can see, by all of the opposition to this, that our governments just want to ram it through at all cost, even at the cost of democracy. And that is what I am interested in talking about, is this crisis in democracy that we have in promoting what the people actually want and what actually will carry us forward into the future with dignity.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact that your prime minister, that Harper, is not there, that the U.S. president, which—President Obama is not there? And I think it’s particularly significant, since he weighs every day what he’s going to do in this election year, what kind of message he wants to send. Instead, he sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet, more than 130 world leaders are there.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: This message is loud and clear. This is a message from Prime Minister Harper, President Obama. The message to the rest of the world is: We don’t care about you; we do not care that your countries may be inundated, and huge social strife may be imminent—and is imminent. I was on a panel the other day with a minister from New Caledonia, a small island nation. I mean, for him, climate change is an issue of survival of his people, in—I mean, in direct terms. And what my country, what the American nation is saying is, “We do not care.”
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting, the Pentagon has reports on seeing climate change as one of the most serious threats to national security, because of vast migrations of people when their areas are desertified or flooded and they must move to other places. As we wrap up, Severn, can you talk about the effects of climate change? In the United States, it is not a common discussion in any way.
SEVERN CULLIS-SUZUKI: It is just—it is staggering how we’re not making the connection between climate change and what is already happening in the ground, not only in the Horn of Africa, not only in the Arctic north, but in the country of America. I mean, I remember in March seeing on the news reports about the hurricanes, the crazy storms that were hitting a huge portion of the continental U.S., and, you know, not to make the connection with what the world’s leading experts are saying is exactly what happened in a situation where climate change was unfolding. You know, actually, we have to really ask, who’s driving the ship here? I mean, really, when we—when the world’s leaders do not listen to science, when they do not listen to the experts who study this, the ones that, you know, really can tell us what’s going on, using facts and data and information, and when we actually have campaigns like in the Canadian current government that are actually trying to shut down science, you know, this really points to a huge question of governance and where are we going.
AMY GOODMAN: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, we thank you for being with us, and for being there 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the largest U.N. summit ever.