Young Irish voices make feelings clear at UN climate summit

Global response ‘still too slow’ given what’s facing planet, says climate ambassador

The world has "gone past the point of idle conversation" about how to respond to climate change, according to Jack O'Connor, a young climate ambassador representing Ireland at the UN Youth Climate Summit in New York.

The problem remains, however, that the global response is still too slow given what’s immediately facing the planet, he told The Irish Times. “We want it to be more impactful.”

From Kilcolman, Co Limerick, Mr O'Connor is studying international business at the University of Limerick and is the founder of Moyo Nua, a social enterprise initiative aimed at improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in developing countries.

He said the summit called by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres would be a worthwhile start "if underpinned by action".


One such action was being led by Ireland and the Marshall Islands calling on governments to pledge to include young people in climate policy creation. The Kwon Gesh Youth Pledge launched on Saturday refers to "solemn duty" symbolising the duty this generation owes to the next generation.

Mr O’Connor also attended the New York climate march on Friday, the largest in the world. “It was my first climate march. I picked a good one. It was captivating. I made signs, and I was proud to hold them up.”

Intergenerational march

Fellow ambassador Valery Molay, a UCD graduate from Dublin, said she had been on climate marches before but was impressed by intergenerational aspect of this one, including students, mothers, babies, different representations and indigenous peoples. This factor underlined the depth of feeling that was emerging, she felt.

Mental health was in the past considered the issue of most concern to young people; now it is clearly climate change, but that encompassed a lot of other issues including poverty, health and decent wages for workers, she believed. “Neither climate change nor poverty can be dealt with if we do not address the economic inequality in our society.”

She believed restructuring our economy and education system centred on the household “can help us achieve a better world for all. Moving away from the scarcity model will give young people the opportunity to regain their critical agency and spur innovations that are necessary for our survival today.”

The summit was creating a platform to listen, to take bold actions and recognise that young people can be innovative in responding to the climate threat, if that is done without boundaries and not clouded by old attitudes of “this does not work”.

Platform for strong leadership

Alicia O'Sullivan, an 18-year-old youth activist from Skibbereen in West Cork, said the summit was a platform for strong leadership, representing a great sharing of a voice for taking real action on the issue.

Ms O’Sullivan attended a climate rally in Cork in March which was attended by 5,000 people. “Going from that to 350,000 people in New York was completely different”, she said, representing a striking empowerment of young people.“And we are finding our voice now,” she added. That equally applied to people who were too young to vote, while reinforcing “as a collective, we are stronger together”.

Jack O'Neill (17), from Portarlington, who was chosen from 7,000 applications worldwide to attend the summit, said recent days had confirmed in his view the climate issue had moved to a higher level.

“People have come out of their schools onto the streets, and we have definitely made a difference,” he said.

He was one of the first climate ambassadors appointed in 2018 under a programme co-ordinated by An Taisce with the support of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as a consequence of his work with the Green Schools initiative. He now organises climate protests under the Schools Climate Action Network (SCAN).

He hoped that “people experiences” emerging from climate workshops at the summit would generate ideas that he could bring back to Ireland, especially for SCAN.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times