Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg told world leaders they were failing young people at Monday’s United Nations climate summit, where US President Donald Trump made a surprise appearance.
“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg said, her voice wavering and her eyes filling with tears.
The Swedish teen’s impassioned speech, in which she repeated the words “How dare you” four times, was the defining moment of the meeting, called by UN chief Antonio Guterres to reinvigorate the faltering Paris climate agreement.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” said the 16-year-old climate icon, who inspired the student-led Fridays for Future movement with her weekly climate strike in front of the Swedish parliament.
“You are failing us, but young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
Thunberg added that the climate pledges made at the event would not go far enough because they were not “mature enough to tell it like it is”.
Listening to the young climate activist were leaders from politics and business, who were set to make commitments to abandon fossil fuels and slow the rise in global temperatures at the UN event.
After she delivered her speech to world leaders, news cameras captured her staring at Trump when he arrived in the same lobby she was in.
Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg sails across Atlantic to attend climate meeting in New York
Trump was not scheduled to be among the leaders, but had briefly slipped into the audience along with US Vice-President Mike Pence to listen to two speeches.
Trump has often voiced his scepticism about climate science and is rolling back environmental regulations in the United States.
Asked later by reporters why he had made an unscheduled appearance at the summit, Trump simply said: “Because I believe in clean air and clean water”.
He also appeared to mock Thunberg on Twitter: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
The short speeches Trump listened to were by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Another clarion call for climate action came from Pope Francis, who addressed the summit via a video message.
“While the situation is not good and the planet is suffering, the window of opportunity is still open. We are still in time. Let us not let it close,” Francis says.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also spoke at the summit, taking a veiled swipe at Trump for pulling out of the Paris accord on taking office.
“The withdrawal of certain parties will not shake the collective will of the international community,” he said.
Guterres’ special event came after Friday’s massive global climate strike and the UN youth summit on Saturday, at which Thunberg also played a starring role.
On Monday, Thunberg and 15 other young activists from around the world filed a complaint to the UN to protest lack of government action on the climate crisis, which they said constitutes a violation of child rights.
Climate was set to be top of the agenda at the UN General Assembly debate, which was starting on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Tribune News Service