Wednesday 20 March 2019

The big read: Ireland's record on climate action is among the worst in the world - and our children are about to protest

Amy Lewis reports on what's motivating them

Dublin : Flossie Donnelly (11) at the Fridays for Future protest outside Dáil Éireann. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Dublin : Flossie Donnelly (11) at the Fridays for Future protest outside Dáil Éireann. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
School children outside Dáil Éireann during one of the Fridays for Future protests. Photo by Colin O'Riordan
Cork: 16-year-old Saoi O'Connor protesting outside Cork's City Hall
Fermanagh: Blogger Dara McAnulty (14)

It's the first day in March and exactly one year since heavy snowfall buried the country beneath a heavy white blanket. Today's view is a stark contrast. Sun beats down on those basking in St Stephen's Green park, many of whom are sporting T-shirts in the unseasonably mild weather.

I sit flicking through a book called The Children's Fire written by author and environmentalist Mac Macartney, who recently visited Ireland to talk on sustainable leadership and reclaiming the future for the generations to come. In the opening chapters, he describes a concept called The Children's Fire that was shared with him by some Native American mentors. This refers to an ancient pledge which said that, when governing the people, "no law, no decision, no commitment, no action, nothing of any kind will be permitted to go forth that will harm the children".

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Across the globe, it appears that this fire has been extinguished for a long time. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions through activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural activities and changes in land use are leading to the warming of our planet, and we are witnessing the effects. Last year's special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the global temperature rise must be kept below 1.5°C by the end of this century in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to the report, achieving this would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

The threat of climate change is something that today's youth are acutely aware of and, from the student movement sweeping the globe, it's clear they're not willing to stand for inaction. Ireland's young people are no exception.

School children outside Dáil Éireann during one of the Fridays for Future protests. Photo by Colin O'Riordan
School children outside Dáil Éireann during one of the Fridays for Future protests. Photo by Colin O'Riordan

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2019 ranked Ireland's performance on climate action in response to global warming as the worst in the EU and among one of the worst in the world. The report acknowledged that existing climate mitigation efforts will not enable Ireland to achieve either its EU 2020 or 2030 targets domestically.

Outside the Dáil, dozens of young people of all ages stand together in their school uniforms, waving placards and calling on the Government to reverse this trend.

"We're out of school to make the world cool," they cry. The protest is part of the Fridays for Future movement, which has seen young people across the globe miss school on Fridays to protest about climate change inaction. Today marks the 14th consecutive week of the Dublin protests.

One of them is environmentalist and blogger Flossie Donnelly (11), who has garnered much attention for her environmental work in recent times. "I'm here today to show the Government and anyone in the world who thinks that we must be in school and not care about the problem, that we do care," says Flossie, who organises regular public beach cleans around her hometown of Sandycove, Co Dublin.

"It's our future that we need to fight for and it's really important that we all fight on this because if it's just one of us fighting, nobody will take us seriously."

Also striking is Peter Reid (12) from Dublin 8, who is supported by many of his classmates from St Catherine's National School.

Cork: 16-year-old Saoi O'Connor protesting outside Cork's City Hall
Cork: 16-year-old Saoi O'Connor protesting outside Cork's City Hall

"Climate change is a big issue and this seemed like one of the biggest ways that children can get involved," says Peter.

The strikes are not limited to Dublin alone, with others being held in Cork, Kildare, Limerick, Tipperary and elsewhere in recent weeks. Largely inspired by Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg, Saoi O'Connor (16) from Skibbereen began weekly protests outside Cork's City Hall in January.

"We want international governments to align themselves with the terms set out for them in the Paris Agreement, we want our world leaders to unite behind the clear scientific truths of climate change and take radical action to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels on global average before it is too late," says Saoi when asked about the young protesters' motivations.

Momentum is building for this Friday, when pupils across the globe will strike in response to the failure of adults to address climate change. Student-led group School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) Ireland is encouraging students from around the country to get involved, and says that interest is high.

While saying that he has been aware of and interested in the issue of climate change for several years, group representative Theo Cullen-Mouze says it was Greta Thunberg who inspired him to take more radical action.

Manifesto of demands

"I'm someone who has dreams for the future. These dreams cannot be realised if we don't take action now because the future will only exist if something is done within the next 12 years," says the Mayo student. "Sometimes you have to stop looking around for someone else to fix problems. You have to start fixing them yourself."

The group has published a 15-page manifesto of demands online, covering areas such as public awareness and media coverage, EU elections and Government action. In the case of the latter, the group calls for a "combination of aggressive legislation surrounding fossil fuel usage, a Government-backed complete transition to sustainable energy and a very heavy carbon tax", stressing that climate action must be taken in a way that does not hinder lower-income families.

"We believe that the issue is no longer about targeting individuals and their actions, but about the Government taking hard action on corporations and the real roots of climate change," Dublin-based member Beth Doherty (15) tells Review.

"The majority of climate change is caused by corporations, and as such we want to see a GND (Green New Deal) as well as tax breaks for corporations with low emissions. Overall, we want the Irish Government to work towards Ireland becoming a leader in climate action," she says.

Member of the SS4C group Chaya Smyth (14) from Dublin says the movement gives a voice to young people like herself who cannot vote. Theresa Rose Sebastian (15) echoes this view.

"This has given us the steering wheel to try and make change right now instead of waiting for us to get into government in years to come and make the changes," says the third-year student from Cork. "We want action so that in the years to come, we can still celebrate and enjoy the life on this earth in a way that we don't have to be continuously looking over our shoulder to see if we can make it to the next day."

According to the many young activists, there's a mixed response from schools and teachers to the March 15 strike. Some schools are fully on-board. Many say they have requested permission from principals to get their school involved and await a response. Others say that regardless of school permission, their parents support their involvement in the cause. Some are not seeking permission at all. While adult support may vary, they all share the same determination to take part.

On a global scale, the movement has attracted criticism from some politicians. A statement from UK Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesperson criticised the thousands of participants of a February 15 school walkout, saying that their action increased the workload for teachers and wasted lesson time. In New South Wales, education minister Rob Stokes warned students in Australia against participating in the strikes.

Greta Thunberg subsequently labelled such statements as something that "belongs in a museum".

Fight for the future

The Irish participants seem equally unfazed by any such criticism. "We want to be educated. We want to have that future where we can use our education to the full. But if we don't take action now for climate change, we might not have that opportunity," says Theresa.

Beth agrees. "The idea of the strike is that there is no point in going to school to memorise facts if the politicians will not listen to these facts," she says. "If school is preparing us for a future, we should fight in order to maintain that future and not have it destroyed by the reality of climate change."

Theo says criticism from the politicians is an "arrogant response" from people who don't understand the problem and who won't have to live with the consequences.

"Under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, every human being is given the right to peaceful assembly. I think what we are doing qualifies as peaceful assembly," he says. "We feel that something is inherently wrong with what is happening now and we don't see other people doing this for us."

In Fermanagh, 14-year-old blogger, naturalist and conservationist Dara McAnulty has been working tirelessly to raise awareness about environmental issues, particularly the threats to biodiversity. He recently became involved in the climate strike movement and took part in a school strike alone, leaving his classroom to sit outside in "50-mile-an-hour winds".

"I had been trying out lots of different methods to try and get people to realise all the devastation that was happening around them. I tried my blog, Twitter, doing stuff round my community and then I just thought, well this is going to make them listen, won't it?" says Dara, whose blog Young Fermanagh Naturalist was runner-up in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Blogger Awards last year.

"I also wanted to make a wave of realism about climate change with other kids because most of us are not educated about this."

Dara's passion for the planet has spurred on his involvement in environmental activism.

"At this point, I don't see myself as separate from nature," he says.

"I see myself as a part of nature and it's all a part of me. I'm not exactly going to want to bring hurt to any part of myself.

"What is happening now is this beautiful giant web is starting to crumble and I can't actually let that happen. I won't allow myself to let any more of this beautiful web of life crumble away."

Dara, whose debut book is set for release in 2020, was invited to speak about environmental and youth issues in the UK Parliament this week.

"They were pretty brave and decided to let me in to speak," he joked several days prior to the meeting.

Decimation of our planet

With the constant barrage of news about the ­decimation of our planet's biodiversity and a changing climate, it's no wonder many people feel disempowered.

However, Ireland's young ­environmental activists hope to empower other young people and show them that they can make a difference.

"Look into what is already going on. If there are younger people doing things, see if you can get involved there," says SS4C member Tara O'Neill (14) from Galway. "If there isn't anything going on, try and get some creative ideas going. Participate in strikes, create your own marches, do whatever you can."

"Take action in any way you can if you want to ensure a future and habitable planet for yourself, your children and every other living thing," echoes Beth. "Nothing will ever change if it isn't challenged."

For young people interested in the climate action movement, Theo says the best first step is to inform yourself.

"Make up your own mind and don't let anyone tell you what you should think. Do the research for yourself. Don't listen to those that say climate change is a hoax. They belong in the same box that we put flat-earthers in," he says.

"After that, if you're interested in striking, there's a number of Instagram and Twitter accounts that you can follow.

"These will provide you with information on the climate strike movement, details, times and locations and so on."

Dara says that everyone can make a difference and while 'petrified' that change won't happen, he remains hopeful. "There's always a chance. We're not at the tipping point yet, though it's coming and it's very close," he says.

"The scientists have the answers that we need. We know what we need to do.

"We have the answers to solving this massive problem and it's just getting the people who can implement these changes to ­actually listen to sense."

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