It would take a brave soul to stand in front of one of the largest and most important gatherings the United Nations has ever held and ask this question:
Are you here to 'save face' or to save us?
And indeed she was brave. One bright 17-year old girl from Auckland, New Zealand, Brittany Trilford, opened the official Rio+20 Earth Summit Wednesday morning, calling out the world's leaders for their reticence to do more for her generation. It was a polite yet pointed appeal to move beyond the unambitious, lowest common denominator outcome that Rio+20 negotiators have delivered:
"I stand here with fire in my heart. I'm confused and angry at the state of the world and I want us to work together now to change this. We are here to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future. You and your governments have promised to reduce poverty and sustain our environment. You have already promised to combat climate change... These promises have been made and yet, still, our future is in danger."
The youth of the world will have to deal with the aftermath of the current power structure, one which is unable to move and unable to make the changes necessary to prevent off the multiple environmental and humanitarian crises that now threaten our planet and its seven billion inhabitants. That has been made clear.
The text offered by the negotiators of this historic summit has been highly criticized for its lack of content. Where the original Rio Summit in '92 gave birth to important legally binding initiatives -- like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which subsequently led to the Kyoto Protocol -- this summit has produced a text so void of content that it has been said by one Brazilian NGO leader, Tasso Azevedo founder of Imaflora, "The distance from the text and almost nothing is nothing."
Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace went farther calling it the "longest suicide note in history." Even a widely supported initiative to regulate the High Seas from over-exploitation, which many thought would be the big win of the summit, was blocked at the 11th hour by Venezuela, Russia, and the U.S.
Brittany, and the generation she speaks for, has earned the right to be angry. And she has made another thing clear. Her generation is up to the challenge -- to tackle not only the environmental crises we face but also the power structure that has enabled these crises to grow worse with each passing minute.
Brittany is here to "speak truth to power"
Tuesday night, the TckTckTck Campaign led a side event at the Rio Centro focusing in on this subject -- "Speaking Truth to Power" -- how young people armed only with authentic voices and a true understanding of the scale of the issues they face as a generation can make a difference, can change the game and steer us away from a collision course with "business as usual."
The panel brought together Brittany Trilford, Severn Cullis-Suzuki who is famous for the speech she delivered as a 12-year old at the original Earth Summit, Lo Sze Ping a young father and environmental activist from China, Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defence Council and Christiana Figueres head of the UNFCCC.. They conversed about what could be done to change the power dynamic that now seems so entrenched. Figueres, an insider in the climate negotiations for years, talked about the need for a wake-up call, one that can only be provided by youth:
'Youth can remind leaders of their responsibilities... My challenge to the youth of the world is to ensure your generation doesn't fall in the bad habits of my generation."
Figueres later added, "What keeps me up at night: the eyes of the children of the next seven generations asking me 'What did you do?'" and she suggested that negotiators ought to bring their children to these meetings, and look them in the eyes as they negotiate their future.
Brittany talked about how social media has empowered her. She was selected out of more than a hundred entries through an online contest called Date with History. 80,000+ voters selected 22 finalists from around the world, and a jury of experts and celebrities picked Brittany to represent her generation at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. Only a few weeks later she took the stage after being introduced by none other than the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to address the leaders of the world.
Perhaps it is the prowess of a generation raised on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and SMS and the concise prose that these platforms demand, or perhaps it is simply that young people are still connected to the truth of their own hearts, unfettered by the byzantine machinations that the current political system is so adept at creating. But Brittany and her generation have a remarkable skill -- to turn words into arrows capable of slicing through the BS and getting to the truth of the matter. A speech delivered to 2000 business leaders meeting at their own conference area, left many moved to tears.
The essence of her message, to corporate leaders, mayors, parliamentarians, heads of state and the media -- all of whom she addressed in the last few days was simple but powerful:
"Act as you should, for the sake of us all."
Call it poetry or just plain common sense, 'them's fighting words.' World leaders, take note.