Cork teen climate activist: ‘Terrifying’ to have protested for a year with no change

As Skibbereen climate striking teen Saoi O’Connor approaches the first anniversary of her Fridays For Future strike at City Hall, she tells ELLIE O’BYRNE her fight will go on
Cork teen climate activist: ‘Terrifying’ to have protested for a year with no change
Climate Activist, Saoi O'Connor at a climate march and rally in Cork city. Picture: Andy Gibson.

A VERY unwelcome anniversary is approaching for Saoi O’Connor.

In mid-January, the 17-year-old Skibbereen girl will have been protesting outside Cork City Hall each week for a year as part of the global Fridays For Future school strike movement founded by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

The cold winter weather makes Saoi’s weekly vigil outside city hall with her distinctive ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ banner more of a feat of endurance than in summer months.

“I started my strike on January 11, 2019, and it was cold,” Saoi recalls.

“Every week we’d be putting tights on under our pants and three layers of socks and your fingers would go numb in the first ten minutes.

“I remember a documentary crew coming to film us and wanting to film me tying a banner to the railing outside City Hall. It took me ten minutes to tie it again because I was so cold.

“It’s starting to get to that sort of weather again now. But there are lots of people who weren’t there in the beginning, so they all have to get used to it.”

Arduous conditions aside, the real reason why a second January of striking is unwelcome is facing the “depressing” fact that there hasn’t been anything that Saoi considers a substantial triumph as a result of her actions.

“My friends in Sweden are already on ‘Year two, week five’ and that’s terrifying, for it to have been a full year without anything really changing,” Saoi says.

“It’s really difficult to deal with. But on the other hand, there are people who have been fighting this battle for 30 years, and nothing’s changed.”

Pictured at City Hall, Cork were a group from Fridays For Future Cork, in February 2019, from left, Darragh Cotter, (16) Caoimhe Cotter, (14); Mira Hencki, (14) and Saoi O'Connor (16) Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Pictured at City Hall, Cork were a group from Fridays For Future Cork, in February 2019, from left, Darragh Cotter, (16) Caoimhe Cotter, (14); Mira Hencki, (14) and Saoi O'Connor (16) Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Does the Fridays For Future campaign’s lack of concrete successes come in part from the growing movement’s lack of clarity about how to achieve their goals?

The student strikers, now in over 6,500 cities in 226 countries worldwide, vow to continue their weekly school walk-out until a safe pathway is decided to the Paris Agreement commitment to “keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 C compared to pre-industrial levels”.

The precise solutions to achieve this, FFF’s website argues, are in the hands of scientists and policy-makers.

“We’re in so many different countries that the goal for a country on the African continent is completely different to the goal for a country in Europe,” Saoi says.

“Ireland is an annex 2 country, which means we have to be at net zero carbon emissions by 2030 to meet our limitations to contribute to a 1.5 degree warming limit this century.

“We’re a very rich country on a global scale, so our targets are very different to targets in other countries. For it to be a unified movement, it has to be fluid.”

It’s been quite the year for the young environmental activist, who counts her Swedish counterpart, Greta Thunberg, amongst her friends.

Last February, Saoi travelled to the European Parliament in Strasbourg for a conference on climate change. She’s done countless media interviews, collaborated with her Fridays for Future counterparts in countries around the globe, and took part in RTÉ’s recent Youth Assembly on climate in Dáil Éireann.

The former Skibbereen Community School student, who switched to home-schooling this year following Transition Year, to juggle her increasing work in climate activism, was also the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Individual Award at Cork Environmental Forum’s annual awards ceremony in November.

It’s an accolade she accepts, while remaining unswerving in her dedication to her cause.

“Yeah, it’s nice, but it’s definitely not the goal,” she says of the recognition.

“It’s not what we expect for doing this stuff, but I appreciate it.”

Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr. John Sheehan presents Saoi O'Connor from Skibbereen with the Outstanding Individual Award, with his her parents Brendan and Isolda, at the annual Cork Environmental Forum Environmental Awards 2019 at the Firkin Crane.Pic: Diane Cusack
Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr. John Sheehan presents Saoi O'Connor from Skibbereen with the Outstanding Individual Award, with his her parents Brendan and Isolda, at the annual Cork Environmental Forum Environmental Awards 2019 at the Firkin Crane.Pic: Diane Cusack

Accolades are one thing, and online hate is another: Thunberg has drawn her fair share of criticism online and in the ‘traditional’ media, and Saoi’s extremely active Twitter account can provoke familiar negative commentary similar to that Thunberg faces.

“People call me all kinds of things on Twitter, so the ‘block’ button is my best friend,” she says.

“The positives outweigh that.”

“This movement is unique, because young people all over the globe have been able to connect via the internet and via social media and talk to each other and organise together and that hasn’t happened before in this way.

“When I’m talking about my friends in the movement, I’m talking about people in France and Spain and Sweden but also in The Philippines and Uganda. Everywhere, literally everywhere. The connection is incredible.”

Although she took part in RTÉ’s Youth Assembly on Climate Change in Leinster House in mid-November, the teen has reservations about the effectiveness of the exercise and the resulting list of recommendations the young people drafted.

“I think they’re a set of recommendations that come from a specific group of young people that were chosen by RTÉ,” she says.

“I don’t think they represent the goals of all the young people across Ireland and I don’t think they could; we had no mandate in any way to represent the movement. My own personal view of those goals is that they’re fine, but they shouldn’t be taken as the goals of the movement in general.

“It felt like a roundabout way to say something that’s already been said. We’re not experts, scientists or policy-makers. The only thing I’m an expert in is being afraid. Having 157 young people come to talk about their fear is a bit weird, but it was a great day that had a lot of significance for a lot of people.”

Climate activist Saoi O'Connor with Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy on Climate Change in Bantry House.Pic Darragh Kane
Climate activist Saoi O'Connor with Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy on Climate Change in Bantry House.Pic Darragh Kane

She’s also vocal in her criticism of climate minister Richard Bruton.

“I have met Minister Bruton so many times now that it would be impossible to still believe in the fantasy that he thinks his job is to fix this,” she says.

“I interviewed him, and I asked him what he thinks a 1.5 degree increase in global temperature means, on a human level. He couldn’t tell me. He could only tell me about the policies and the structure and the goals. I was saying, ‘no, at 1.5 degrees the Marshall Islands will be under water. I have friends there.’

“He just kept talking about the political side of it. And despite myself, I do still always find it shocking that we manage to elect so many people with so little empathy.”

Currently combining studies for her Leaving Cert with her activism, which can mean 2am meetings to combat time-zone differences, Saoi is reticent about her personal goals for 2020, beyond the shared goals of the school strike movement and her relentless determination to bring about change.

She’ll be attending the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, which continues until December 13.

“The most important thing is that we need to peak emissions in 2020 if we want to hit our targets and that’s massive for Ireland, because we’re the worst in Europe for climate action,” she says.

“2020 is a critical year for the climate; there’s a lot to be done and it’s an ongoing battle. And if this battle has to be fought, I’m going to be one of the people fighting it.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content