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Before Greta, there was Severn, the B.C. girl who silenced the world

Severn Cullis Suzuki was just 12 years old when she made an impassioned plea to avert ecological disaster at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. The world listened, but little changed.

More than two decades ago, in front of world leaders, a young girl from B.C. took to the podium to plead with the planet’s politicians to take action to prevent species extinction and global warming.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who was only 12 when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, became known as “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes.”

The world listened, but little changed.

At the summit, the daughter of environmental scientist David Suzuki made an impassioned speech to the adults in the room to change their 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,” she said in the famous speech.

“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.”

In an address on Tuesday, Thunberg told the United Nations that governments around the world were stealing their childhood and their future.

Cullis-Suzuki, now 39, remembers what it was like to get up in front of the world’s leaders and urge them to prevent an ecological disaster. She wasn’t nervous — she was ready to fight.

“When I look back now, I think: ‘Wow, that is a good speech.’ Not all of my speeches are like that and it is because we had practised so hard. We were ready,” she said Thursday from her home on Haida Gwaii, where she is doing her PhD in anthropology with a focus on language revitalization in the region.

She had saved up, along with a group of four other youth activists, to travel to Rio, where they set up a booth at the conference. For two weeks, they tried to get their environmental message out to anyone who would listen. Finally, they were invited to speak at the plenary session.

Cullis-Suzuki said several environmental accords were signed in Rio that by today’s standards would seem radical, so it really felt like the world was listening.

“But then we went into some of the worst decades in terms of environmental degradation and the disparity of wealth and power. So I think we were heard, but the question is why then did we go in the other direction,” she said.

She said she admires Thunberg and all the youth activists mobilizing on social media and organizing protests.

Severn Cullis Suzuki
Severn Cullis Suzuki - Dana Moraes

Unlike in 1992, we are living with the visible signs of climate change such as increased and severe wildfires and hurricanes, as well as with climate refugees. An increase in nationalism is causing so many problems worldwide, she added.

Although Cullis-Suzuki experienced some backlash over her speech in Rio, she said it was nowhere near the level of vitriol that Thunberg is experiencing on social media from trolls and climate change deniers.

“It is absolutely shocking. It is so intense,” she said, adding that she is saddened by how the language in the public sphere has degraded. “You see the language that the president of the United States is using. He is degrading our public comment, and it is horrific.”

Cullis-Suzuki, who lives on Haida Gwaii with her husband and children, says even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, her kids will still see massive change and difficult times. But she is also hopeful because nature is resilient. She points to the return of the grey whales where she lives as an example of how nature can be restored.

“Despite humans killing off whales as much as they could, give it time and they come back. If we give nature a chance, it will regenerate,” she said.

“We don’t know the future. We can’t write it off because we don’t know what is going to happen. Two years ago, nobody knew who Greta Thunberg was, so who knew that she would emerge and trigger a worldwide movement. She has already changed the game.”Cullis-Suzuki said her message to all the youth and their supporters taking part in this week’s climate strikes is to keep going until action is taken to protect nature and slow climate change.

“The end times are here. And that is a lot, so that is why we have to do our best to stop it.”

Climate change is already causing impacts on the oceans and melting the ice caps. It is causing coral reefs to die and is linked to deadly heat waves and severe fires.

On Wednesday, another report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that at current emissions levels, extreme floods that have historically struck some coastal cities and small island nations once every 100 years will become an annual occurrence by 2050.

Last Friday, millions of people marched through the streets of cities around the world in what was the largest global demonstration for climate action. On Friday, the final day of a global week of action inspired by Thunberg, tens of thousands of people are expected to strike in B.C.

— With a file from the Times Colonist

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