Twenty years ago, a 12-year-old girl took the podium at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and told a room full of world leaders that they were failing her.
"Coming 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," she said.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki was only nine when she and her friends created the Environmental Children's Organization, or ECO, a group dedicated to learning about and educating others on environmental issues. The speech she delivered just a few years later at the 1992 Earth Summit captured the world's attention and would in many ways shape her life.
"Do not forget why you're attending these conferences, who you're doing this for. We are your own children. You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying, 'Everything's going to be all right,' 'We're doing the best we can,' and 'It's not the end of the world,'" said Cullis-Suzuki.
"But I don't think you can say that to us anymore," she said. "Are we even on your list of priorities?"
The year after she gave this talk, Cullis-Suzuki received the U.N. Environment Programme's Global 500 Award in Beijing. Over the last two decades, a video of her speech has made its rounds on the Internet, earning the now 32-year-old Canadian activist the title "The Girl Who Silenced the World for 6 Minutes."
"To take a step back, and not even look at this as myself but as a phenomenon, seeing a child speaking truth to power is a very, very powerful image and story. And it's something that I've never received any criticism for, and that blows my mind," said Cullis-Suzuki in an interview with ClimateWire.
The speech "really cut through a lot of the rationale we have as adults ... for destroying the natural world and destroying options for the future," she said. "Now, as a parent myself, I understand why people reacted to me, because I remind them of their own kids, and people love their own kids."
This week, Cullis-Suzuki has returned to Rio for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, which opens today. She is teaming up with the Canadian youth-centered group We Canada to help the next generation of world leaders speak up in the global dialogue.
Falling off her government's agenda
Cullis-Suzuki is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and prominent Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki. Having also received a bachelor of science degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale University and a master of science in ethnoecology from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Cullis-Suzuki is no stranger to the sustainability issues facing the planet.
She hosts "Samaq'an: Water Stories," a Canadian television show about First Nations communities and water issues. But before that, she served on the U.N. Earth Charter Commission and on then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Advisory Panel for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Cullis-Suzuki said she has grown skeptical of the top-down approach to negotiations, but when she was asked to be one of We Canada's 12 "Champions" on sustainable development at the Earth Summit, the girl who always spoke up couldn't say no.
We Canada was launched two years ago as part of the Canadian Earth Summit Coalition, an independent nonprofit created to engage the public in the Rio de Janeiro conference. Cullis-Suzuki consulted with the group on its three policy recommendations: to establish a measure of national progress that includes the natural environment, to implement a carbon tax and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and to push the government of Canada to add fair trade to the sustainability agenda.
The three policy recommendations were presented in consultations with more than 8,000 youth across the country and supported in more than 1,200 signed letters to the federal government. The Canadian government, however, did not include We Canada's recommendations in its national strategy for Rio+20 or meet with civil society groups to have them shape the national report, according to Aleksandra Nasteska, We Canada's communications director.
In response to a petition, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said that it held consultations within the federal government, which is led by a Conservative Party majority, and opened the strategy document to a 120-day public review.
The letter does not respond to We Canada's three policy recommendations directly. Instead, it referred to the "increasingly inclusive" nature of U.N. conferences for how the coalition's policies could be brought into the zero draft.
Nasteska said it felt as though the government was writing them off. "As in, 'You're youth, so there's no reason why we should listen to you,'" she said. "There's no commitment to action or no invitation to meet with us."
After We Canada presented the policy recommendations at regional consultations with the U.N. Environment Programme and submitted them directly to the Earth Summit, however, its three ideas were woven into the primary U.N. negotiating document, she said.
Overall, the expectations for Rio+20 are not high. The European Union and United States still face serious economic troubles, and tensions over the responsibilities of developed versus developing nations that plague the U.N.-led climate talks are also clouding Rio.
Cullis-Suzuki said she is not holding her breath for world leaders, from Canada or elsewhere, to instigate meaningful change at Rio+20. For We Canada, the main goal is to represent Canadian civil society and serve as witnesses to the government's actions. "We need to challenge them, not just at the summit but beyond," she said.
The best outcome of the talks would be a new sense of momentum behind sustainability efforts, she said. Support for action on environmental issues tanked during the 2008 financial crisis and has yet to climb back up. Failing to use this transition period to steer the world economy in a new direction would be a missed opportunity, she said.
Fighting the Northern Gateway pipeline
Cullis-Suzuki is also looking to shape Canada's environmental legacy by engaging in a campaign against the proposed Enbridge Inc. Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the coast of British Columbia.
Where she lives with her husband and two sons on the Pacific Coast archipelago of Haida Gwaii, the Haida people, including Cullis-Suzuki and her family, live off the land and hunt and fish for food. To get Canadian bitumen to ports and ships bound for Asia, the pipeline would cross 5,000 salmon bearing streams and create a huge threat to these fish populations, she said.
The national government has pushed hard for the $5.5 billion project, which it says would expand Canada's foreign markets and spur economic growth. But federal politicians have also limited public input to only those directly affected by the pipeline and have passed new legislation to streamline environmental reviews that could apply retroactively to the Northern Gateway pipeline (ClimateWire, June 5).
While she hasn't given up on the fight against the Northern Gateway, Cullis-Suzuki said that if the international community doesn't rally around a new approach to economic growth, battles over individual pipelines will keep cropping up while the planet decays.
"When I get really overwhelmed, I take a step back as a biologist and as an ecologist and say, 'Well, if we really trash the planet and we really limit the ecosystems that support us, life will continue on; evolution will continue on,'" she said. "Whether or not the charismatic megafauna will survive -- the lions, the tigers, the elephants and things that occupy a similar space on the top of the food web like we do -- that's another question."
For solutions, Cullis-Suzuki looks back to her start on the global stage in the fight for a sustainable future.
"We really need to hear from the youth, because young people, people under 30, now comprise over 50 percent of the world's population, and yet they have so little decisionmaking power," said Cullis-Suzuki. "We need them to rise up and remind us what it's all about."