Cork climate activist Saoi O’Connor says act now or 'we may not have a future'

This time last year, climate activist Saoi O’Connor was a regular teenager, thinking mostly about where she would spend Halloween with her friends.

Cork climate activist Saoi O’Connor says act now or 'we may not have a future'

This time last year, climate activist Saoi O’Connor was a regular teenager, thinking mostly about where she would spend Halloween with her friends.

Just 12 months later, she’s immersed in a complex, adult world, having quit mainstream school to campaign full-time with her friend, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg.

Meetings, media, and phone calls now fill Saoi’s days. She squeezes in schoolwork on the bus travelling from conference to protest podium.

Dubbed ‘the Irish Greta Thunberg’, Saoi will probably spend her 17th birthday later this month “giving a speech” somewhere.

“Activism is my life now. It’s 24/7, a full-time job,” she says.

“It’s quite difficult when you’re operating in an adult world. But if we don’t do it now we may not have a future.”

Her dedicated activism has led to a friendship with Swedish activist Thunberg.

“She’s very cool and we have a lot in common,” says Saoi. “It’s odd to be around her because there are so many journalists. Cameras are everywhere. Even if you cry. they take pictures.

“At a climate strike summit in Lausanne, she was at the other side of a room to me giving a press conference. When she saw me by the door she had to duck under two cameras just to get through to say hi.

“It’s absolutely shocking the negative press she’s had. She shouldn’t have to deal with it.”

While Thunberg has Asperger’s, Saoi suffers from a sensory processing disorder, yet both teenagers have achieved more in one year than most will achieve in a lifetime.

On her motivation to start pushing for climate action, Saoi says: “The UN’s IPCC report was a big turning point for me and I think a big turning point for the world.

“The Paris agreement had called for a limit of 2°C warming, but the IPCC said that 1.5°C was the absolute maximum and beyond that, the effects would be catastrophic.

“So at the beginning of September last year I decided that campaigning for action on climate change was what I needed to be doing. I switched to homeschooling. My parents were really supportive. And my dad’s an accountant so he helps me with my economics.”

Saoi started striking for climate action on January 11, outside Cork’s City Hall.

“That first Friday was lonely,” she says. “Two other students came for half an hour and my dad stopped by. Then, people did not know who Greta Thunberg was, or that thousands of students were already striking around the world.

“Our whole outlook around climate has shifted over the last 10 months. It’s taken little children walking in the street to make governments pay attention. But the emissions curve is still rising.”

Saoi O’Connor at a meeting with Mauro Petriccione, director general for climate action in the European Commission, in May.
Saoi O’Connor at a meeting with Mauro Petriccione, director general for climate action in the European Commission, in May.

Saoi, whose name means sage or wise person in Irish, seemed destined to change the world from the start.

Her first media interview came when she was just three years old. She was dressed up as a banana at the St Patrick’s Day Festival in her home town of Skibbereen to highlight the importance of supporting fair trade.

“My whole life I’ve been surrounded by social justice issues, and climate action is very much part of that,” she says.

“At this point, I’m used to the way politicians talk to me as a young person and as a young woman. They don’t like me and they don’t like it when I challenge them. They say ‘you don’t understand politics’. Well, if to understand politics I have to care only about money and not about protecting people’s lives then I don’t want to know about it.

“[Climate Action and Environment Minister] Richard Bruton keeps telling me to have faith in him but how can we trust him when they’re talking about importing fracked gas? It is very scary. Politicians are not stupid, they know the effects of their actions and they don’t like that being pointed out.

“But I’m not asking people to like me, I’m just pointing out the science. Because the gap between science and policy is terrifying.”

In February, Saoi travelled to the European Parliament in Strasbourg for a climate debate where activists outnumbered MEPs by more than two to one. The drab ideas delivered in formulaic speeches shocked the young activist.

“There were about 60 activists from across Europe but only 26 MEPs,” says Saoi. “We could have taken them in a fight! Each designated speaker just read from their scripts and it was over. They weren’t going to say anything radical. To see that happen in a room, it was painful and frustrating.

“We had been told to stay absolutely still and quiet but we were so angry we started chanting: ‘What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now!’ At least they heard us.”

Saoi believes that Ireland can — and should — lead the way on climate action.

“Island nations are leading the conversation,” she says. “The Marshall Islands were leaders in negotiations at the Paris talks. They said we need to keep warming below 1.5°C or they would drown. It would be great if Ireland could keep below 1.5°C so the Marshall Islands can continue to exist.

“To do that, we need to shift away from fossil fuels and have zero carbon emissions by 2030. And we need to change our public transport infrastructure and our whole cultural mindset.”

Activist Saoi believes Ireland should be leading the way in climate change. Picture: Larry Cummins
Activist Saoi believes Ireland should be leading the way in climate change. Picture: Larry Cummins

When asked about college or a future career, Saoi said that she finds it “difficult to see that kind of a future right now” but she might like to study law.

“But I have to fight climate change now so that one day I might have that chance.”

Saoi says that, despite the alarming predictions of global warming, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions that may destroy our world, climate strikes show that everyone, even the smallest among us, can have a voice and can affect change.

“My advice to other activists is to get on Twitter,” she says. “That’s how I connected with other activists.

And you don’t have to wait for other people.

On my first strike I was sitting alone for most of the day. Then people didn’t know what climate strikes were. They didn’t know Greta Thunberg. Now there are millions of us across the world striking and Greta speaks at the UN. It shows that you can change things.”

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