We’rev only a matter of days away from Cop26, the global event in Glasgow where world leaders get together to share updates on how much progress they’ve made in meeting their climate goals since they signed up to the Paris Agreement back in 2015. And if Greta Thunberg’s assessment of the situation is anything to go by, it’s going to be a whole load of ‘blah blah blah’ with more talk and not enough meaningful action.
Writing about the state of the world over the weekend, Greta pulled no punches saying: “The truth is there are no climate leaders. Not yet. At least not among high-income nations.”
And she’s right. The boldness and bravery of what’s required to address a problem of this magnitude is in short supply because entire economic and political systems are built upon a reliance on fossil fuels. Changing that system needs radical thinking and a willingness to make big compromises. Those who are cosy now are not quite ready to get uncomfortable and face up to the level of disruption needed over the next 20 years for the sake of the longer term survival of humanity.
What Greta didn’t say, but likely already knows, is that there are climate leaders. They just don’t happen to be the majority of elected political representatives and law-makers pulling the strings. They’re in Thunberg’s peer group. Generation Z care about climate change more than anyone else because they can see their future literally being robbed before their eyes.
They’ve got nothing to lose and they’re making their voices heard. A recent viral video showing a young Scottish activist named Lauren calling the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell Ben van Beurden “one of the most evil people in the world” shows how emotionally charged and uncomfortable things are getting. Lauren, visibly upset, told Van Beurden he should be ashamed of himself for seeking to start fresh oil projects near her home, before walking off the stage.
No matter what your opinion is of the efficacy of this kind of approach, it puts companies like Shell in the spotlight in a way that any business and its shareholders would rather avoid. News headlines at time of writing reads: “Boom time for Shell amid record gas prices” so it’s still making hay while the sun shines when it should be fixing the roof. And this is why the company has become so problematic for young people.
The subject of greenwashing and fossil fuels is no longer a niche one reserved for news bulletins. It’s now on mainstream TV in the form of documentaries like Joe Lycett vs The Oil Giant on Channel 4. Lycett (a comedian and presenter) impersonates Van Beurden in a spoof Shell ad while repeatedly pooping from his mouth to make a point about the company’s climate messaging. This particular clip was deemed by regulators to be too vulgar for TV but it’s doing the rounds on social media. Shell’s comms team may not be having a good day but in the words of one TV critic, “Greta Thunberg would love it”.
In Ireland, the average age in the Dáil is 48 and only 2pc of TDs are in their 20s. But according to the World Economic Forum, young people are best placed to lead the transformation that’s needed to address climate change because they’re the ones with the most innovative ideas and energy to build a better society for tomorrow. After chatting to some of Ireland’s leading change makers who’ve received awards for their work, I genuinely believe this to be true. Forget influencers pedalling fast fashion on Instagram, the real celebrities are the young innovators who care about the planet. Over the last fortnight, two awards ceremonies have spotlighted the work of climate innovators in a way that we’ve not seen before.
The Earthshot Prize founded by Prince William brought together the likes of David Attenborough, actress Emma Watson and footballer Mo Salah for a glitzy carbon friendly ceremony to recognise the achievements of those pioneering solutions to the world’s biggest problems. And the Renaissance Awards, founded by sustainability expert Livia Firth, specifically focused on young international leaders driving change. Of the 18 youths around the world who received a Renaissance Award, two of them (Fionn Ferreira and Róisín Tapponi) were Irish. To me, this speaks volumes about the level of talent we’ve got in this country and the important role our young people can play in helping Ireland to reach its emissions goals.
Fionn Ferreira (20) from Schull in west Cork was a teen when he set about trying to build a tool to remove micro plastics from water. He’d been out kayaking in his neighbourhood and was struck by the amount of plastic litter on the coast line. Listening to him recount how he went about addressing the problem is revealing. “I was just 15 and my options were a) tell policy makers about the problem or b) see what I can find out about it.” He chose the latter.
“I didn’t have a lab so I built my own,” he says. Fionn made a range of machines using Lego, sensors and bits of wood. Science is about exploring, he says, before shocking me with the statistic that we ingest around five grammes of plastic every week – the equivalent of a credit card. The Google Science Fair recognised Fionn’s pioneering work in 2019 and now he’s just got a Renaissance Award which comes in the form of an environmentally friendly NFT (non fungible token) – a world first and “pretty cool” in Fionn’s own words.
Fionn is brimming with energy and a can-do attitude. But he’s also candid about the role he wants to play in making a change and doesn’t see activism or politics as the only route. “It has almost become cool to become a climate activist. Traditional activism has an effect to a degree. But it’s not the only way. For me, I like to invent and be in the lab.” By the same token, just as activism isn’t the only route to building a better world, neither is science. The arts can also play a meaningful role in how we engage with issues like climate change and social justice. Any climate activist will tell you that the problems that exist in the world today are inextricably linked to social inequality – something that’s been referred to as ‘intersectional environmentalism’.
This is why the work of 22-year-old film curator Róisín Tappoini is important. Róisín, an Iraqi-Irish woman, set up the Habibi Collective in 2018. It’s an archive and platform that makes films from South-West Asia and North Africa available to the communities they’re about. “Film and art is such a vehicle of social change. This is about accessibility and representation and supporting women’s work’.
Fionn and Róisín are achieving their goals in different fields, but they’re both unanimous about one thing: the need for more support for young people (grants, funding and resources) to help them fulfil their ambitions. It’s impossible not to be inspired by people like Fionn and Róisín. After years of reading headlines from the IPCC report spelling ‘code red’ for humanity and the grim projections about what lies ahead for the planet, a sense of doom and gloom can either make you switch off or feel hopeless.
The ‘eco anxiety’ is real. The latest cherry on the cake is that Ireland has just failed to meet 2020 EU emissions targets despite life almost grounding to a halt during the pandemic. Now we’ll end up paying millions of euro in carbon credits just to be EU compliant. Earlier this year, the government announced a framework to help children and young people take part in decision making. Let’s hit the accelerator and build on that please. Ireland’s young people are what give me hope right now. We have some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds on the planet who could really help us sort this out... if only we were willing to listen and respond.