West Cork's answer to Greta Thunberg, Saoi O'Connor, says the time for complacency over climate change is long gone.
We want people to panic because time is running out, says Saoi O’Connor, a-16-year-old transition year student from Skibbereen Community School who has been on strike from school every Friday since January to highlight ‘political inaction on global climate change.’
She takes the bus to City Hall in Cork as part of a global school strike demanding immediate action to reverse global warming. It’s part of a movement started by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in raising awareness in this area.
High profile figures as well as thousands of scientists have lent their support to the strikes. Stephen Rahmstorf professor of Physics of the Oceans at the University of Potsdam Germany stated that the student strikes are ‘perhaps our last chance to get meaningful climate policies that can achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.’
The movement known as #FridaysForFuture, culminated in a mass protest on March 15th where an estimated 1.6 million students worldwide went on strike.
#FridaysFor Future was inspired by Greta who continues to make worldwide headlines and who said: ‘Adults keep saying “we owe it to young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I want you to act like your house is on fire because it is.’
In March Saoi travelled from Skibbereen to Strasbourg with other delegates from the European #FridaysForFuture movement to hold a press conference at the EU. She avoids flying whenever possible to lower her carbon footprint so her journey took 30 hours.
She joined in the London strikes on her way back as her train was delayed and was disappointed that she missed out in being at the March 15th protests back in Cork where she helped to start the conversation.
She has also made an appearance on The Late Late Show along with other young climate activists and is articulate beyond her years.
It was by reading scientific reports on climate change that Saoi came to understand the situation and it was the power of social media that made her sit up and think about action.
‘I grew up in the era of technology. You can find out about everything that’s happening,’ she said.
She explained: ‘The youth strike movement has been powerful because I think the time has come for it. When we heard Greta speak so powerfully and so truthfully with no agenda behind her, I think that resonated with a lot of people and it was definitely something that people wanted to get behind.
‘I saw climate strikes were happening in other parts of the world and I thought: right; that’s awesome. We could do that. There wasn’t one happening near me so I just started one. I had previously organised a solidarity March for Our Lives to support the actions of the Parkland Florida anti- guns students in the US so I had a bit of knowledge on how to start.’ Saoi can trace her activism to the age of four when she dressed in a banana costume to promote fair trade in the Skibbereen St. Patrick’s parade.
Her parents, Isolda and Brendan, are both supportive of their daughter’s activities, which also include being chair of the Green Schools committee and secretary of the Student Council at Skibbereen Community School.
Standing outside City Hall in all weather Saoi holds up a sign, which simply says: ‘The Emperor has no clothes.’
Saoi explains: ‘The governments and politicians who claim to be acting are doing nowhere near enough. We don’t have time to wait.
‘I’m striking because I believe in our right to a habitable planet to inherit. I’m striking because I know that current generations are already feeling the impacts of the changed climate - hurricanes, cyclones tsunamis are all occurring more frequently and with more devastating impacts. And I know that my generation and the generations that succeed us will feel these effects even more severely unless we act now,’ she said.
‘Climate change is an issue that affects us all globally and you can observe its effects here in Ireland in so many ways – we now have more extreme weather and more frequent storms.
‘Skibbereen has experienced so much flooding over the past 10 years. Recently we had a hurricane here in Ireland! I had thought that that would not even be possible but it happened and my family had no electricity for a week.’
Standing outside City Hall in Cork on Fridays the teenager gets plenty of reaction which also includes her share of detractors.
‘I’ve been surprised by the extent to which a lot of people are still in denial about the climate crisis. We’ve had outright deniers; people have come up to us and told us that climate change isn’t real, that we’re being manipulated or that we’re part of some international conspiracy. I’ve been called a ‘Leftist pawn’ or some variation thereof more often than I can count.’
She takes it on the chin: ‘Climate change is the most pressing issue that we face, because it is a culmination of all our ingrained social injustices. It is the product of racism, imperialism, classism and corruption.
‘People say you should be in school,’ she continued. ‘I would prefer to be in school and I’m upset that I have to do this. For those who think I’m just doing it as an excuse to skip school I say, if that was the case I would rather stay at home.’
Theresa May was one of those who criticised the school strikes but in sharp contrast former President of Ireland Mary Robinson lent them her support. ’You are never too young to lead. We are never too old to learn,’ she said.
Saoi has read Mary Robinsons book on climate justice and is delighted that she will be at this summer’s West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry.
She recently urged MEP’s to stand with Irish youth and advocate for meaningful change in the European Parliament.
‘As Greta put it: “We are not here to beg them to act, we are here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”’