Greta Thunberg has established herself as the planet’s spokeswoman on climate change at the tender age of 16. But long before social media, another teenager was scolding UN leaders on the world stage 27 years ago.
In the year since she organized school walkouts in her native Sweden to protest climate change, Greta Thunberg’s environmental crusade has been unavoidable, culminating on Monday in an angry and passionate speech before the UN’s Climate Action Summit, in which she lambasted politicians for stealing her “dreams” and her “childhood” with “empty words” while humanity stares down “a mass extinction.”
Thunberg’s grim pronouncements have earned her savage criticism, and glowing praise. New York Magazine called her “the Joan of Arc of climate change,” while The Guardian ranked her speech alongside President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for its historical significance.
Then again, they said the same about Severn Cullis-Suzuki in 1992. Long before Thunberg deadpanned to parliamentarians that “we probably don’t even have a future any more,” and netizens tore each other to shreds attacking and defending her, 12-year-old Cullis-Suzuki became known as the “The girl who silenced the world for five minutes” when she delivered a similar sermon before the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The tone of Cullis-Suzuki’s speech is strikingly similar to Thunberg’s. “We’ve come…to tell you adults that you must change your ways,” she opened, just like Thunberg told the assembled adults “we will not let you get away with this.”
Just as Thunberg told the UN summit “we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” Cullis-Suzuki told leaders that “losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market.”
And underpinning both girls’ messages was a nihilistic fatalism. “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,” Cullis-Suzuki said in 1992. Striking schoolchildren in 2019 carry banners reading “You’ll die of old age, I’ll die of climate change.”
The environmental problems addressed by Cullis-Suzuki reflect the world of the early 1990s, when deforestation, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the extinction of species were the ecological concerns de jour. Yet humanity has been fairly successful at resolving those problems in the intervening years. Thanks to a landmark chemicals ban, ozone depletion has slowed dramatically, and forest cover worldwide has increased by an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined.
Cullis-Suzuki herself went on to found an environmental think tank and work for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Special Advisory Panel in the early 2000s.
So what does the future have in store for Thunberg? Well that depends how you look at Cullis-Suzuki’s example. On one hand, none of her worst fears came to pass. On the other, world governments still have ecological problems to contend with, and are still being lectured by children about them.
Assuming the world as we know it still exists 27 years from now – as Thunberg says it won’t unless we slash carbon emissions to absolute zero in the next decade or so – then the teenage activist will likely look back on a long UN and NGO career that kicked off with one famous speech.
By then, another concerned child will likely be delivering a passionate warning about acid rain in the Martian colonies.