NI climate activist: We are last generation who can save the planet

GRAEME COUSINS speaks to climate activist Emer Rafferty about her approach to recruiting others to save the planet

Monday, 16th August 2021, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 16th August 2021, 5:52 pm
Emer planting wild flowers close to her home

Ahead of representing Northern Ireland at November’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, 18-year-old Emer Rafferty has issued a polite reminder that our planet’s future rests with us.

Although she admires Greta Thunberg, the Co Armagh girl isn’t one for going in “all guns blazing” like her Swedish counterpart and fellow climate activist.

Emer, from Ballymacnab, said: “I personally think Greta is brilliant. Some people don’t agree with how she words things, people get overwhelmed by that.

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Emer Rafferty

“As ambassadors we don’t have to go in and say ‘wake up’ and all that sort of craic, there are other ways to carry out environmental work without the backlash.

“You do need those sort of people like Greta too. You need people from both ends of the spectrum and the people in the middle.

“She shouldn’t be getting abuse for what she’s saying. There is an emergency, it is urgent and she’s responded to that and is trying to get other to do the same.

“In every campaign there’s always the leaders – in human rights, in poverty – there’s always the people who don’t hold back, they say what has to be said. It gets people talking.”

Emer Rafferty on a litter pick

Emer, a former student at Keady High School, said her environmental journey began around three years ago when she was 15 after watching documentaries, reading books and speaking to people about the issue.

She said: “I believe environmentalists are simply anybody who acts to address the climate such as cutting out single use plastic, composting food waste, having a meatless diet or taking the bike instead of the car.

“It’s never too late to get involved in helping our planet, and if you aren’t sure where to start, that’s what the other ambassadors and I are here for, to inspire people to take action themselves ahead of COP26. ”

Emer is one of the young climate ambassadors at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which takes place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.

She said: “This ambassador role is a role I take as a great privilege and honour and I am very grateful for. I am confident in myself to deliver on the job at hand.

“My ambitious, positive, determined and purposeful mindset will shine through like the other ambassadors. I owe a lot to those people who have helped me along the way and have supported me in my mission to do my part and help others do theirs.

“As someone involved in sport I will go forward with the motto that I will leave it all on the pitch, I do not intend to look back on this experience and say that I wished I had done more.

“We are on the search for the next 13 ambassadors and anyone from over the age of 18 can nominate themselves of someone they know via the COP26 website. Never doubt yourself – your experiences, stories, opinions and passion can help you stand out.”

Tracing her formative evolution in climate activism, Emer said: “Both local and global heroes sparked my interest in taking action and having the views and opinions that I now have.

“Changing people’s attitudes is a difficult task, however my approach is to promote the beauty of the world we have around us and to explain why some actions we are taking are being detrimental to the planet.

“The most effective way to get people to listen is to be respectful. Whilst I never push my opinions on anybody else, I simply provide the scientific facts and from there individuals can make their decision.

“One person who helped shape by love of nature would have been Ronan Quinn, a local environmentalist where I live who has been one of my inspirations. Ronan just quietly gets on with things that help local biodiversity. Small things make a big difference.”

She continued: “My environmental work started locally – planting wild flowers around our community, providing seeds to local people, creating a community garden and showing the local primary school where fruit and vegetables actually come from.

“Although when my environmental work grew nationally and internationally, the coronavirus pandemic ruled out climate rally opportunities for me. However, opportunities arose to meet like minded people over Zoom calls, sharing opinions, ideas and stories.

“Covid provided us with new and excited volunteers eager and ready to help the community, help nature flourish and of course help our own mental well-being.”

Asked if she’d faced barriers or arguments from climate sceptics when trying to get her point across, Emer said: “I have faced barriers along the way, however none have, or ever will be, too much to turn me off my mission.

“Removing barriers can include showing people, particularly the youth, not to be afraid to have a passion for the world they live in. It is a wonderful trait and indicates that you care more about the important things in life. The things that really matter in the end.”

Emer, who is a member of Ulster Wildlife’s Our Bright Future campaign, a youth ambassador for Global Action Plan, and part of the Northern Ireland Climate Strategy with the Department of Education, said: “We have reached a key point in terms of our planet’s future. We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet. This is the making or breaking point and we have a responsibility to do our part. That demands we come together for our planet.

“I believe climate change can be fixed if we have the will.

“Without local and global co-operation, we will never hear the end of the words ‘climate change’. Supporting and innovating others is the key to the best outcome for our people and our planet.

“We will fix this problem. We have to. But it will take a supportive network of determined and decisive people, and we have plenty of them here in the youth ready to get started. Indeed, we already have.”

The difference between weather and climate

Emer said often people look at weather in the short-term rather than see the bigger climate picture.

She said: “There is a difference between weather and climate. We’re jumping from one extreme to the next, what does that show?

“I think the general public aren’t really grasping that. That’s where we come in and try to show that going from one extreme to the next isn’t normal.

“It’s the floods and the droughts that people associate with climate change more so than sun. When you think sun you think happy. When the sun is shining people say, ‘I could get used to this’. A week later there’s flooding. That is not normal.”

Emer added: “I’m worried, I’m scared, but I’m hopeful as well. The amount of people I speak to keep me going and give me hope. There’s also people that can weaken that hope and put you down.

“Seeing everything that’s happening, the lack of action. That’s when you get disheartened and the fear and eco-anxiety kicks in. You can’t let that distract you. There’s a job to do.”

She said: “It breaks your heart to hear people say, ‘sure I’ll be dead and gone before it happens’.

“You’re always going to get those who deny climate change but it’s just about having respect.

“I would never push my opinions on anybody or tell them you have to do this.

“I tell them the information, the science, from there they can make their decision of what they want to do.

“You can’t pressure anyone because that’s whenever people go against you.”

Family getting on board slowly but surely with plan

Emer said: “My family definitely have become more environmentally aware, they’re going to kick on.

“We’re getting solar panels put up, I’ve been going on at them and they’ve finally cracked.

“I’m getting an electric car and we’ll have a charging point at the house, that might start them thinking.

“Mummy is definitely getting into her recycling, composting. Daddy is a bit of a harder one to crack. I have to admit he’s getting better, and he has taken an interest because of what I’m doing.”

Having finished Keady High School this summer Emer is hoping to go to university this September: “Hopefully going to Queen’s to do Chemistry or Chemical Engineering. I was going to go down the medical route but I realise I need to help the planet more than I need to help people.

“There’s other people feel the other way. There are plenty of people who do things to help the other people.

“Sometimes wildlife and nature and the planet get left behind.

“The planet is like a second class citizen.”

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