Young People Know What's at Stake at UN Rio Conference: Their Future

Last week I had the joy of watching my daughter get married in our backyard. Weddings make me think of the future, and while I know my daughter and her husband will build a good life together, I worry about the challenges their generation faces.

I wonder what kind of world they will inherit. Will we confront climate change and other environmental challenges in time for them to thrive and prosper? Or will we leave my daughter’s generation to deal with the health hazards, economic stagnation, and political upheaval that will result from our paralysis?

Some of these questions will be answered two weeks from now at the United Nation’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This gathering of heads of state, environmental leaders, corporate executives, and activists has the power to shape what kind of future we create.

That’s why young people must make their voices heard in Rio.

If the conference produces nothing more than empty promises on paper, we will have failed my daughters’ generation and missed a precious opportunity to change course. But if the conference inspires leaders to commit to enacting real solutions starting today, then we can build a path toward vitality and sustainable growth.

Young people have the power to make this an historic summit. With the launch of the online tracking tool for country preparations, young “summit-watchers” are holding their leaders accountable for the commitments they make in Rio. Here are some of our youth activists explaining the initiative:


NRDC and our partners also launched a Date With History, a video contest inviting young people to record what they would say to world leaders gathered in Rio.

Passionate and inspiring submissions poured in from Nigeria, Belgium, Peru, China, and all around the world. Online viewers voted to select the finalists, then a panel of judges—including actor Leonardo DiCaprio, actor Hayden Panettiere, UN Foundation President Timothy Wirth, Former Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva, Brazilian actor Sergio Marone, and UNFCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, myself, and others—made the final selection.

I was moved by every video I saw, but I was especially impressed by the winner, Brittany Trilford, a 17 year old from New Zealand. Brittany starts her video by acknowledging that world leaders have already said they would combat climate change and other environmental challenges.

“These promises have been made. That’s not enough. Still, our future is in danger. With all due respect, let’s be realistic. Many of you will be gone before any of the environmental consequences of your actions catch up with you. I may be too, but what about my children, my children’s children? We are all aware that time is ticking, and we may be running out.”


This is a message world leaders need to hear, and I am so pleased Brittany will be coming to Rio to deliver it in person. She articulates with strength and clarity what so many of us believe:  “I want a future where leaders will stop talking and start acting. I want a future where leaders lead.”

I believe the conference in Rio can inspire this kind of leadership, because I saw how the first Rio Earth Summit created its own transformation 20 years ago. Today many nations, cities, and corporations have environmental sustainability programs. That was unthinkable before the first Earth Summit. Rio focused the world’s attention on the concept of sustainable development and prompted nations to create their own plan for promoting economic growth in ways that preserve natural resources.

Real progress grew out of the 1992 Rio conference. Now we have to make this Rio conference just as transformative. We have to create the next generation of environmental leadership—one in which action and accountability trump lofty pledges and inscrutable documents.

Young people are already creating this kind of change on campuses, in community gardens, in urban neighborhoods, in startup organizations. They are finding ways to curb carbon pollution, protect fisheries, and make cities more livable, and they are getting results. Now they expect results from national and corporate leaders.

We believe we can create a new model in Rio: one that focuses on concrete action instead of vague agreements. And we believe young people will help lead the way.