We can’t silence teenagers who are speaking up for their future

Greta Thunberg at the UN climate summit, Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Severn Cullis-Suzuki gave her speech at the United Nations Earth Summit, the world applauded her. The speech became a viral sensation and she was all over the media. That was 27 years ago. Although people liked to talk about the then 12-year-old girl ‘silencing the world’, no one actually listened to her. 

The reason we know this is because years later we’re in the same place with teenagers being the faces of change, speaking in front of world leaders and advocating for the environment. Except now they’re not talking about theoretical change and an unforeseeable future but pleading for the world to listen, because unlike all those years ago, this may be our last chance.

“You are failing us,” Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit last month. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”

Greta speaks for young people of the world who are striking and trying to make a change. But why should it be their responsibility? Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier and more choose to stand before adults, most of whom would rather ridicule them than admit they have been wrong and spent years ignoring a real issue. Why is it children who have to put themselves forward? 

Greta was right when she accused world leaders of stealing her childhood. A 16-year-old girl shouldn’t have to leave school and sacrifice her time and youth to put herself in the limelight and be scorned by ignorant men 40 years her senior simply for speaking the truth. But unlike those yelling at her to go back to school and leave politics to the adults: the point is not that she shouldn’t be doing this; rather that she shouldn’t have to be doing this. She also shouldn’t have to repeat herself over and over to grown people who choose to ignore what she’s saying because she’s a child. Especially if she’s the only one willing to ask the important questions. when teenagers emerge in force to march for their future, we shouldn’t be punishing them – we should be worried.

Greta isn’t able to change the world alone. But she is able to inspire millions to help her do so. Or rather, she already has. 

In September alone, over six million people participated in the climate strikes in 150 countries worldwide. More than 70 countries made pro-environmental commitments and plans under The Paris Agreement. But with the likes of Donald Trump still using vulgar methods to try to humiliate the face of the movement, we need to ask ourselves – are we doing enough?

As of 2018, the UK was decarbonising its economy at the fastest rate in the G20, showing that the government has been paying attention. Yet for so long there was a vacuum in the climate policy debate that was filled by teenage activists who became mouthpieces of science. They gave an impetus to the movement which has gained so much momentum to become the topic of daily news coverage and editorials in every newspaper and magazine.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki was the Greta of her time before environmental action became the dominant issue faced by every government. But Greta may be the last of her kind. Because, as she said, if we don’t strike now, we might not get another chance. If Greta and teenage activists like her are the only ones speaking up, perhaps we ought to listen. 

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