Monday 21 October 2019

'Sometimes I worry there's no point, and that people are too lazy to change' - Meet The Irish Gretas working for a greener future

Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has become a global leader in tackling climate change - but she's not fighting alone. Here, Alex Meehan meets the Irish teens working for a greener future.

Saoirse Exton from Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney
Saoirse Exton from Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney
Catriona Reid from Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh
Dubling native Flossie Donnelly organises beach clean-ups. Photo: Fran Veale
Climate Activist Molly Mercier Redmond (15) from Greystones. Pic Steve Humphreys
Environmental activist Dan Hatter (18) pictured in Bray. Pic: Mark Condren

This month Ireland became only the second country in the world, after the UK, to declare a climate emergency - a move that was greeted with enthusiasm by environmental advocacy groups around the world. One response in particular was noted: Greta Thunberg tweeted "Great news from Ireland!! Who is next? And remember #ClimateEmergency means leaving fossil fuels in the ground."

Even the most hardened climate sceptic knows who Greta Thunberg is. The Swedish 16-year-old has done more to capture the public's imagination in recent months than much of the green movement has managed in decades. And the reason is simple, she's sincere and relentless in her criticism of politicians who talk but don't act when it comes to climate change. Because of this, one day last summer she decided to skip school and sit down outside the Swedish parliament to raise awareness, and almost a year later, her obstinate refusal to accept the status quo has inspired copy-cat walk-outs and sit-ins around the world.

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Her point is essentially that the young people of today will inherit a planet that's in serious trouble unless action is taken now, and the facts appear to be on her side.

According to a recent UN report, a staggering one million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. Between 1980 and 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were cleared in South America and South East Asia, to facilitate cattle ranching and palm oil plantations. Plastic pollution has increased 10-fold since 1980, and every year we dump 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents and toxic sludge into the world's oceans.

The environment is struggling, but the UN says it's not too late to reverse these trends. Here, we meet five young Irish activists who are working to make that happen…


Catriona Reid

Catriona, 19, is a Green Party member and activist from Cork.

Not many 16-year-olds win awards or publish books based on their environmental activism but in the case of Catriona Reid, that's all part and parcel of raising awareness of the issues that affect the community she lives in.

Three years ago, she wrote a blog documenting the events surrounding objections to planning permission being granted for a waste incinerator to be located at Ringaskiddy. In addition, she represented the Green Party at an oral hearing with An Bord Pleanála. For her efforts, her blog posts were collected and published as a book, and she was awarded the 2016 Cork Environmental Forum Award.

Today, the 19-year-old is based in Carrigaline, Cork, where she is studying for her Leaving Certificate. She hopes to go on to UCC and then into politics. "I became politically active when I met the Green Party in 2015 at the count for the marriage referendum. They were some of the loveliest people I'd ever met and they took me seriously as a 15-year-old. They made me feel included and like I could do something with my life," she says.

The issue of the incinerator galvanised the teenager and she became convinced this wasn't the best option for the people of Cork. "There is very little evidence that incineration is a viable way to dispose of waste. It makes far more sense to move towards an ideal of zero waste production. Yes, it'll take decades to get there but the only way to not have incineration is to do that," she says.

At a practical level, she would like to see shops and supermarkets dramatically reduce the amount of packaging they produce which in turn ends up in landfill or being incinerated. "We need to increase recycling, and provide more recycling bins in schools, hospitals and workplaces. We need to build awareness of the benefits of recycling and in my opinion, incineration is the very last thing we should do with our waste because it creates pollution in water, in the air and in our food chain," says Catriona.

"People are open to it. Last year I helped organise a shopping project where we offered to take plastic packaging off people's food, using an idea from Zero Waste Ireland. We stood outside three supermarkets in Carragaline and asked shoppers to give us their plastic packaging. We collected loads of plastic, paper and cardboard that could be recycled."


Saoirse Exton

Saoirse is a 13-year-old climate change activist from Limerick.

Saoirse Exton from Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney

Saoirse Exton is an example of the current generation of teen activists mobilising around Ireland. Tweeting under the username @fridaysforfut18, the 13-year-old climate change activist from Limerick considers Greta Thunberg a personal hero.

Since learning about the Fridays for Future movement set up by Thunberg to encourage kids to walk out of school, Saoirse has staged a series of strikes for climate change, setting up outside the Limerick 2030 building in the city with placards and signs.

She's attracted the attention of local TDs and councillors who have come out to ask her about her ideas, and her school, Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh, has yet to discipline her for walking out of class.

"My parents are very supportive and they know I can keep up with the school work I'm missing. At first they were a bit scared but after the first week they became supportive when they saw how much I cared about these issues," says Saoirse.

"My school is supportive. The principal likes all my tweets so that's important. I think some of the teachers don't really agree. They're not open about it though. It doesn't matter, what matters is that the public understands that action is needed."

Saoirse has been striking each Friday morning, usually with a small group of friends and on the first official global strike day on March 15, 400 students joined her protest. She hopes even more will turn out for the next big strike this week, on May 24.

"Greta is a huge inspiration. She's my hero and I think she's incredible, the most inspirational person I know of and at a young age too," says Saoirse.

"I've always been interested in climate change but was always slightly depressed by it.

"But when I saw Greta give her TED talk I realised it wasn't going to be okay and I have to do something. I want our Government to take action, to put in stronger regulations... I want a lot more action."

"Sometimes I worry there's no point, and that people are too lazy to change but you have to keep fighting while there is still a chance. Look what we've done?"



Flossie Donnelly

Hailing from Dublin, 12-year-old Flossie organises beach clean-ups.

Dubling native Flossie Donnelly organises beach clean-ups. Photo: Fran Veale

It was while on a family holiday to Thailand that 12-year-old Flossie Donnelly first became aware of the damage people were doing to the environment. While out kayaking, she was appalled by the amount of rubbish in the sea and started collecting it to dispose of properly.

Back at home in Sandycove, Dublin, the habit continued and three years later, a mini-movement was started, documented on her website, "When we got home and were walking on the beach here, I started to notice how dirty they were and so we started cleaning them," she says. "I've been doing that for two to three years now. We organise beach cleaning sessions for the public once a month during the winter and once a week during the summer but I do it by myself more regularly all year," says Flossie.

Donnelly, her family and her friends regularly clean Sandycove Beach, Killiney Beach and Dun Laoghaire Beach, but she says that's just because they happen to be near to where she lives. Anyone can clean any beach at any time.

"It doesn't really matter, any beach will do. When we go out, my mum helps and sometimes my friends help as well. We put up notices on Facebook and Twitter and organise people to come along and usually between 10 and 15 people show up," she says.

"It's important to keep the beaches clean because if you don't, rubbish pollutes the water and kills the marine life. Any animal that eats plastic will probably choke on it and everything the marine life is suffering with will actually affect us as well in future. If we don't look after them, it'll happen to us."

Over the years, Donnelly has found everything from old car batteries to bridal bouquets and used needles on the beach. She says she'd love to see the Irish Government do more to raise awareness of environmental issues.

"If I could wave a magic wand, I'd make it so climate change would end and never come back and that everyone would understand why it's important to recycle. For example sometimes when I'm out walking I notice that people put their recycling into black plastic bin bags, but these bags aren't recyclable. It's crazy!"


Dan Hatter

Eighteen-year-old Dan is an environmentalist from Co Wicklow.

Environmental activist Dan Hatter (18) pictured in Bray. Pic: Mark Condren

In 2016, two things happened to give the then 15-year-old Dan Hatter a sense of how big an impact people could make on the world. The first was the Brexit vote in the UK and the second was the election of Donald Trump in the US. "I was actually in England with my family the day the Brexit results were announced and I could see massive change taking place right in front of my eyes. That made me realise that the status quo can change, and it can change for the worse," says Dan.

"Meanwhile, the week Donald Trump was elected I was doing work experience from transition year in Leinster House with Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin and so I was right in the heart of politics. That made me realise that if I didn't make an effort to make good things happen, I'd feel like I was partially at fault for letting bad things happen too." This realisation had a big effect on the teenager's world view and when he went back to school at Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Dublin, he decided to do what he could to improve the world around him.

"I've always been interested in political and social justice but environmental activism is the biggest interest I have. As a kid I'd much rather watch David Attenborough documentaries than cartoons and that interest has stayed with me." His interest in green issues turned into a climate change campaign in Newpark that saw the school declared the first single-use plastics free campus in Ireland, followed by Dan joining the Young Greens.

Today he's a branch coordinator with that organisation, he has given TEDx talks on his chosen subjects of environmentalism and has won a number of Young Environmentalist Awards from Eco-UNESCO, all while studying for his Leaving Certificate.

"Getting single-use plastics out of Newpark was a great result. The big problem is that, as an individual, it's incredibly hard to make a measurable difference. But as a school, you really can. Plastics are such a bane of the environment and they're everywhere, so it can seem hopeless to try to push back against them," he says.

"But we realised that if we persuaded the school to get rid entirely of single-use plastics, that would have a real impact on our local area. We got 1,500 people around the school to go plastic free and it made a big difference."


Molly Mercier Redmond

A climate activist from Co Wicklow, Molly is 15 years old.

Climate Activist Molly Mercier Redmond (15) from Greystones. Pic Steve Humphreys

Molly comes from a family with a history of activism; cousins have worked for the Green Party and her father has campaigned on issues surrounding adoption. For her, though, the issue that has grabbed her attention is climate change.

A second year student at Educate Together in Bray, Wicklow, she's part of the Schools' Climate Action Network (SCAN) and she has personally has held protests to draw attention to climate change every Friday for 10 weeks in a row.

"Greta Thunberg is a huge inspiration, that's where I personally became activated. I saw her speak in the European Parliament and I was amazed that someone so young could command so much attention. It made me see that I really need to keep going," Molly says. "Hopefully she'll come to Ireland and I'll get to meet her. I'd like to see more people follow her lead."

The SCAN group that Molly is a member of is made up of school students supported by sympathetic teachers, all working to draw attention to the group's six core demands. These are geared towards creating a better future for the young people of today and aim to hold the Irish Government accountable for its promises on climate change.

"Not all of my friends are as politically active. Some are and some aren't, and that's okay to me. Right now we're gearing up for the big march this Friday, May 24. The idea is to pressure local TDs and make them aware of our six core demands laid out at," she says. "There is a real shift taking place in attitudes around the world and when you realise just how many people are out marching then it starts to feel irresponsible not to join them. This is our world we're talking about, there isn't another one. Please come out and support us on May 24."

A highlight of the school girl's activities so far was when she met President Michael D Higgins as part of a SCAN delegation at Áras an Uachtaráin. "We spoke briefly and he seemed like a very sound guy. I loved meeting him and his dogs!"

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