Young people have consistently led the charge against the climate crisis, holding world leaders and corporations accountable for their damaging actions, and taking to the streets to demand immediate changes for the benefit of the environment. 

Global leaders in youth climate action gathered in Milan this week at the Pre-COP26 Summit to appeal to leaders, yet again, to prioritize protecting the planet. 

Speaking to young delegates at the summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres saluted the youth for standing up for the planet, saying that their leadership is essential in the fight against climate change, and describing the crisis as “code red for humanity.” 

“We need young people everywhere to keep raising your voices,” he said in his video message at the summit. 

“Your solidarity and demands for action set a powerful example,” he added. “We need national leaders to follow your example and ensure the ambition and results we need at COP26 and beyond.”

The summit comes just a few days after hundreds of thousands of young people marched in cities around the world on Sept. 24, for the first in-person Fridays for Future youth climate strike since before the pandemic. 

Getting world leaders to act on their words and commitments has become a solid theme in the calls made by young people. This message was clear at the youth strike on Sept. 24, and it was clear again at the Pre-COP26 summit. 

Taking to the Summit stage on Sept. 28, two of the most prominent voices in the global youth climate movement, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, both delivered empowering speeches on the urgency of the climate crisis and to demand that world leaders step up. 

Nakate spoke personally about the impacts of climate change already being felt in her home country, before highlighting the harmful impact that climate change is having on the Global South. Thunberg called out world leaders for their devastating actions, and explained that the power for change remains in the hands of the people. 

Both delivered the message that while there is hope to turn things around, actions need to be prioritized over words. Here are some of the key points from their speeches. 

Vanessa Nakate

1. “Many Africans are losing their lives, countless more are losing their livelihoods”

Nakate, who founded the Rise Up movement, a platform for African climate activists, began her speech by telling a story about coming across a crowd of people and police in her hometown searching for survivors after a heavy downpour had washed away part of the street. 

Nakate lives in Kampala, Uganda, a country which she says has one of the fastest changing climates in the world. By telling this story she highlighted the devastating reality that the impact of climate change is happening already, right now, and is impacting the lives of people who did little to cause it. 

“In the past few years, I have seen more and more of how the climate crisis is affecting the African continent. Which is ironic given that Africa is the lowest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions of all continents, except for Antarctica… Many Africans are losing their lives, while countless more are losing their livelihoods.” 

2. “You cannot adapt to extinction” 

In the wake of devastating floods and extreme weather around the world caused by global warming, Nakate spoke about how simply trying to adapt to the weather, rather than stepping up to actually halt climate change completely, will not be enough. And complacency means entire communities who are disproportionately affected are at risk and fighting for survival.  

“There is one thing I almost never hear leaders talk about, and that is loss and damage. For many of us, reducing and avoiding is not enough. You cannot adapt to lost cultures, you cannot adapt to lost traditions, you cannot adapt to lost history, you cannot adapt to starvation. You cannot adapt to extinction.” 

3. “How long are we to watch them die of thirst in the droughts?” 

In the most poignant and emotional part of her speech, Nakate spoke of the heavy toll caused by delays in climate action, and asked how long the world is going to wait to act. 

She also referenced a recent report from the UN that says that Madagascar is on the brink of a climate change-induced famine after four years without rain. 

“How long are we to watch them die of thirst in the droughts? And gasp for air in the floods? What is the state of the hearts of the world leaders who watched this happen and allow it to continue? Our leaders are lost and the planet is damaged.” 

4. “Why is it so easy for leaders to open new coal power plants?” 

True climate leadership means embracing a move away from fossil fuels — which, simply put, means to stop opening new coal power plants and funding new oil fields, Nakate argues. 

And at this point in her speech, with UK minister and COP26 president Alok Sharma listening, Nakate could have been referencing the fossil fuel projects that the UK has plans to go ahead with, including approving further oil exploration in the North Sea. 

“Why is it so easy for leaders to open new coal power plants, construct oil pipelines, and frack gas, which are all destroying our planet, and harming the future and present for their children.” 

5. “No more empty summits, no more empty conferences.” 

Nakate ended her speech by imploring leaders to make the changes needed and to deliver the funding needed to help vulnerable countries adapt. 

“No more empty promises, no more empty summits, no more empty conferences. It’s time to show us the money. It’s time, it’s time, it’s time. And don’t forget to listen to the people and places most affected.” 

Greta Thunberg

6. “Climate change is not only a threat, it is, above all, an opportunity.” 

As Thunberg kicked off her speech at the summit, there was a tone of hope to her voice as she explained that the climate crisis should not be viewed as an issue alone, but as an opportunity. She even went on to say that with innovation, cooperation, and the creation of green jobs, things can turn around.

“Climate change is not only a threat, it is, above all, an opportunity to create a healthier, greener, and cleaner planet which will benefit all of us. We must seize this opportunity.” 

7. “Blah Blah Blah... This is all we hear from our so-called leaders, words.”

Reiterating the message she had amplified just one week prior to the summit at the global climate youth strike, the 18-year-old highlighted that world leaders need to finally put their words into action. She also called them out saying that they host summits and events to “pretend that they are listening to us, but they are not,” explaining that world leaders have used words to cover up their inaction on the crisis. 

“Blah Blah Blah... This is all we hear from our so-called leaders, words. Words that sound great, but so far, have led to no action. Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and their promises.” 

8. “The climate crisis is of course only a symptom of a much larger crisis.” 

Thunberg took a moment to acknowledge that climate change is a result of a deeper social issue, more specifically, a crisis of inequality that has been entirely man-made and dates back centuries. The point she makes here is that the world cannot tackle climate change alone, but must simultaneously crack down on social inequalities and injustices that have helped to define the climate crisis and those who suffer greatly as a result of it. 

“The climate crisis is of course only a symptom of a much larger crisis. A crisis based on the idea that some people are worth more than others, and therefore have the right to exploit and steal other people’s land and resources. It is very naive to believe that we can solve this crisis without confronting the roots of it.” 

9. “Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal.”

This is what Thunberg said before going into a detailed list of all the ways that world leaders had contradicted themselves in promising change, but not implementing it. She went on to say that leaders had been continuing to grant oil licenses and invest in coal mines all while “shamelessly congratulating themselves” for the very little work they’ve done to protect the planet.

“Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal. The people in power cannot claim that they are trying because they are clearly not.”

10. “We can no longer let people in power decide what hope is.” 

The young activist truly drove her point home by reminding the audience of the power that they have. She emphasized that while the world is waiting for leaders to “walk the talk,” the power to take action and to call for change still lies with the people. She ended her speech by saying: ​​”We can do this, I’m absolutely convinced that we can, but it starts with the people.... It starts with taking action, and it starts now.” 

“We can no longer let people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not ‘blah blah blah.’ Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”

Global Citizen Life

Defend the Planet

10 Powerful Quotes From Vanessa Nakate & Greta Thunberg at the Pre-COP26 Youth Summit

By Helen Lock  and  Khanyi Mlaba