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Teen activist scolds world leaders for inaction on climate change

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden addresses the

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden addresses the Climate Action Summit at UN headquarters on Monday. Credit: AP / Jason DeCrow

UNITED NATIONS — Environmental activist Greta Thunberg gave a fiery address in Manhattan Monday, scolding the world’s leaders for not doing more to stem the tide of climate change — and warning that her generation will not forgive inaction.

“My message is that we will be watching you,” the Swedish teenager said while taking part in a panel of other young people and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN Climate Action Summit. “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”

Her voice halting and anguished, the 16-year-old's passionate speech of a few minutes stripped away the reserved decorum normally present at the UN General Assembly, where heads of state and government deliver lofty speeches in a less confrontational style. 

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she added. “And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

She garnered the loudest and most sustained applause at the outset of the global discussion. Her speech was the last of four on the first panel, which also featured youth activists from Brazil and India.

Guterres opened the event urging world leaders to step up and reveal their best climate change plans.

“This is a climate action summit,” he said. “From the beginning, I said the ticket to entry is not a beautiful speech, but concrete action. And you are here with commitments.”

Guterres provided a grim global weather report to demonstrate the urgency of the problem: melting glaciers, drought, wildfires, heat waves, devastating storms and rising seas, all of which he attributed to human-driven activities including the use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.

He called the Climate Action Summit to set in motion reforms that would accomplish the goals of the Paris Agreement, a pact where governments in 2015 pledged to work toward reducing carbon emissions to slow the rise in the Earth’s global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. 

That’s the point at which some climatologists believe the damage may be irreversible.

“If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself,” Guterres said. “Governments are here to show you they are serious about enhancing nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. Cities and businesses are here showing what leadership looks like, investing in a green future. Financial actors are here to scale-up action and deploy resources in fundamentally new and meaningful ways. Coalitions are here with partnerships and initiatives to move us closer to a resilient, carbon-neutral world by 2050.”

Thunberg said that the science that has identified the threat of climate change has been clear for 30 years, and that young people would hold their leaders accountable for leaving her generation saddled with the consequences of halfhearted attempts and failed policies.

“You are failing us,” she said. “But 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. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”

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