As It Happens

David Suzuki joins Stephen Lewis, Buffy Sainte-Marie for 'Climate First' tour

Environmental activist and science broadcaster David Suzuki says he's hitting the road, along with "fellow elders" Stephen Lewis and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

'This is an issue as if we are at war,' the environmental activist says is his message to young voters

Environmentalist David Suzuki says voters need to look at climate change in the upcoming federal election as if we are country at war against greenhouse gas emissions. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


David Suzuki is embarking on a cross-Canada tour with fellow activist and former diplomat Stephen Lewis, and singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. The trio say their goal is to encourage young people to stop climate change.

They admit that may no longer be achievable in their lifetimes, but they warn the consequences could be dire for the audiences they're hoping to attract — if they don't act. 

Suzuki spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about why the three are launching the tour at the start of a federal election campaign. Here is part of their conversation.

Between Buffy Sainte-Marie, Stephen Lewis and yourself, it's quite a lineup of stars. But you're all senior citizens, sorry to say. What's your appeal to young people?

I call us the "Silverback Gorillas and the Grizzly Mom." I believe we've earned the right to speak as elders, as seniors. And our commonality with youth is that we no longer have a vested interest in the status quo. We don't have to play games to get a job or a raise or a promotion. We're not interested in money or fame or power. And so we're free now to speak the truth from our hearts.

Young people have everything at stake for the big decisions that have to be made in the coming months. And so we feel as as silverbacks, we want to pass on our life experiences and maybe point out the pitfalls or the strengths of what they're doing.

A poster for 'The Climate First Tour' featuring activists David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis, and singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. (Kevin Ball/CBC)

But if there's any demographic who gets it — who understands the imperatives here, dealing with climate change and the environment — it has to be young people. So aren't you preaching to the converted?

I hope you're right because they certainly have become very active. I think Greta Thunberg from Sweden has had a galvanizing impact on young people. But, you know, their voting record in the past has been very poor. Eighteen- to 22-year-olds coming into the voting age are traditionally not a high participation group.

But our message is: you've got to do more than just get out and vote. That's the most critical thing.

You've got to galvanize your peer group. And you've got to demand of everyone running for office — whatever party they're in — you've got to say, "Is climate change your No. 1 issue?" Because this must not remain a partisan issue. This is an issue as if we are at war.

You know, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and [then-U.S. president  Franklin] Roosevelt declared war then, nobody said, "Aw, this guy is going to break the bank. Our economy is going to go to hell. These damn Democrats don't have the right priorities." Everybody got together.

When the Raptors were playing in the finals, you know, all of Canada — even Montreal, for God's sakes — was rooting for Toronto. We need that kind of spirit.

Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis will be part of the tour. (Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

So how do young people — how do you direct them? And they have very few options in voting.

They are a group that traditionally has not been on the political priority — because quite frankly, when politicians are elected the first concern is re-election. And children don't vote.

And so one call is for young people to galvanize their parents and everybody who cares about them, and where we're going to become eco-warriors to demand before the election that this be put up as a No. 1 issue.

You're absolutely right. Right now, climate is a partisan issue.

If it remains a partisan issue, when we go into another government — doesn't matter which government it is — if climate isn't the No. 1 issue, then it seems to me we're just sacrificing the future of youngsters for political concern.

You mentioned how you have no other interests in this, you've lived well. You're not alone in that, we've all lived well, [those] of our generation. What is it for young people to say, "Well, it's easy for you to say that. I've got student debt, and now you want me this to save the planet." What do you say to them?

You've just sent a spear through my chest. I met three of the girls — well, they were young women — who organized the last big march in Montreal when there were 150,000 people on the streets a few months ago. And when I had the chance to meet them, quite frankly, I broke down and cried.

I cried not out of gratitude, but I cried that these young people who should be developing their life goals and their skills and so on have to be the ones that are driving the demand for action on climate that my generation and the boomers that followed — we have partied like there was no tomorrow. And we didn't think about the repercussions.

So yes, and there's a lot of sense of guilt and sadness on my part. But look, we've just got to get on with it. My carbon footprint has been enormous. To make films, I've done a lot of flying and I regret that. But we've got to get on with the challenge now.

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show in Nashville, Tenn., in 2015. (Mark Zaleski/The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)

One other area I want to ask you about, because we've been covering it these weeks — the way that environmentalists who are active on this file are being attacked online. These are vulnerable young people who are reading this stuff online. How intimidating— because it's designed to intimidate, right? So how intimidating do you think some of this stuff might be?

I've been run off the road when I was jogging in Haida Gwaii by a trucker who was hauling logs. I've been told not to come to towns, logging towns in British Columbia. And we actually had a bullet fired through our window in Vancouver.

I mean, I'm just thinking on Sunday, I was filming in Montreal. And the crew and I were sitting in a restaurant a guy came up — sidled right up, he wasn't invited. He just sat right down next to me and he said, "I have to tell you, you are nothing but a fraud. Everything you say about climate change is bulls--t."

Now I think he would have done more, but I was sitting with the crew around me. And I finally, and in the finest intellectual terms, I told him to F off.

But had I been alone, it might have been a different kind of confrontation.

So my heart goes out again to the warriors — and as you say, the women become particularly vulnerable and are the major targets for it. It's the kind of time that we have.

The premier of Alberta, one of the first things he did was to set up a war room. And I think we need a war room because I think the battle against climate change is a war.

Interview produced by Kevin Roberston. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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