Harnessing young minds to solve the climate crisis

The Earth Prize encourages teenagers to speed up change towards environmental sustainability

Some 120 years ago a young man who, despite his best efforts, couldn’t get a job as a university professor had the good fortune of landing a job as a technical expert at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. It seems odd that having a brilliant mind tucked away in such a sleepy office, rather than gracing the universities of the day, should be such a stroke of good fortune. Yet, having the time to think with little distraction and a day job studying new patents involving clocks and trains, helped solidify what would go on to be some of Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking ideas in physics.

On September 1st this year I will take a train to Bern, not on a pilgrimage to Einstein, but to the Irish Embassy where the Irish Ambassador to Switzerland Eamon Hickey will host the launch of the Earth Prize 2023. Just as clocks and trains seem to have no obvious connection to the theory of relativity, it may seem odd to have this connection between a global environmental prize for teenagers and the Irish Embassy in Switzerland. Let me explain.

The Earth Prize is a global competition open to teenagers with ideas to accelerate change towards environmental sustainability. After the Geneva-based Earth Foundation launched the Earth Prize last year it spread, within months, to participating schools in 114 countries and territories. Getting that global reach for an inaugural competition involves touching some nerves, a dedicated team, and some diplomatic help. The nerve we touched was the frustration and passion that young people everywhere feel about climate change and environmental pollution.

The diplomatic help we received to spread the word about the Earth Prize came from Swiss embassies around the world. It was gratifying to see the Swiss ambassador to Vietnam host the winning team of three young Vietnamese women at the Swiss embassy in Hanoi. He recounted being blown away by their novel idea of using waste from dragon fruit to create environmentally friendly sanitary pads.


The team behind the prize goes beyond the dedicated Foundation staff and includes world-class adjudicators, passionate university mentors, goodwill ambassadors who volunteer their time and networks, and a youth board which helps guide The Earth Prize as it evolves and grows. One fiery and active member of the youth board is a young Limerick lady, Saoirse Exton. I was struck yet impressed by Saoirse’s ability to ask tough questions at the recently held Villars Institute symposium. It bodes well for the Earth Prize and environmental activism that we have passionate young leaders emerging in Ireland.

This year we hope to surpass the 114 countries and territories we attained last year and, with that in mind, we reached out to the Irish Ambassador to Switzerland. Being a proud Irish man who lives in Switzerland, I am excited by the enormous opportunity that would come from having the support of not only Swiss diplomats but Irish ones as well. I will be incredibly proud and excited to see the team behind the Earth Prize launch it for its second year at the event in Bern on September 1st, an event we hope will be attended by ambassadors to Switzerland from around the world resident in Bern and special guests attending virtually.

Those special guests will include students and teachers who are participating in the Earth Prize competition for the second time, and many more new entrants who have heard about it and are waiting to submit their fresh ideas. Feedback from teachers worldwide has been extremely positive. Bringing real-world problems into classrooms, seeing students work on solutions, and getting inspired by their solutions is what the Earth Prize is all about.

Great ideas and inspiration can come from the least obvious places as one young man in Bern showed more than a century ago. Next spring when we choose the 10 finalists to showcase their ideas, I hope to see an Irish team in the mix.

Relativity and quantum physics tore up the textbooks of their time. As humans, we like the stories and personalities behind the timeline of fundamental physics discoveries. In reality, the laws of physics are immutable truths waiting to be discovered. The question is when, not if.

Perhaps some day in the future we will look back at today’s talk of green deals, carbon neutrality, and net zero targets as steps along the timeline toward environmental sustainability as immutable as the laws of physics. The Earth Prize, intergenerational platforms such as the Villars Institute, and many more movements to prepare today’s youth for the arduous path ahead, are necessary to speed the changes needed to secure a sustainable future for us all.

Peter McGarry founded The Earth Foundation to accelerate positive change toward environmental sustainability. To learn more about The Earth Prize, or attend the virtual launch event on September 1st, please visit theearthprize.org.