17-year-old Irish climate activist Anna Kernahan would rather spend her Fridays in school. Instead, every week without fail, sometimes with company but frequently alone, she protests at the Spirit of Belfast statue in Cornmarket, Belfast.
Social Media coordinator of the UK’s student climate network, and founder of Fridays for Future Belfast, she is at the forefront of a wave of change that is sweeping across the country–altering the social discourse, political landscape, and cultural values– and affecting every person who is concerned about the future of civilization and life on earth.
Despite some political victories in Northern Ireland in 2019, however, there is still a long way to go to make the positive change that will be necessary for subsequent generations to be able to focus on their education–to “Go to school on Fridays”, as it were–without the inescapable terror of impending widespread ecological devastation that will, perhaps, ultimately define the current generation.
Looking back, what was the moment that sparked your need to take action?
I’d always known about the climate crisis from school but it had been taught passively–as though it was a problem for future generations to deal with–but, with general curiosity leading to more independent research, I discovered the IPCC special report on climate change which highlighted that we are that generation. We are the ones who are failing at the expense of our children and I felt a compelling moral duty to do anything I could.
I first heard of the movement through hearing about the iconic Greta Thunberg in the news. She inspired me to get involved and join a local strike. Since I am not old enough to vote for my own future, school striking for the climate seemed like the most feasible opportunity to at least get media attention to the climate crisis to hopefully inspire adults to wake up and take back the lead on our future that they have been neglecting.
I have been striking with NISCN (Northern Ireland Students’ Climate Network), which is the Northern Irish branch of the youth strike for climate movement, since May, and this involves monthly strikes for climate action. However, by August literally nothing had happened, so I wanted to do more. There was no FridaysForFuture strike in my country, so I created my own, and currently solo strike.
Any regrets since you started protesting?
Firstly, I regret not starting sooner. In Belfast, the Lord Mayor announced that a climate emergency would be debated and two weeks later we got it declared. However fantastic a step this was, virtually nothing has happened since. Action is happening but at a snail’s pace so if we’d started sooner, we’d actually have the time to take it slow. But we don’t and we need action yesterday.
Secondly, I regret not being more brave about it. I talked to a senior teacher at my school about skipping school every Friday. They laughed in my face and told me I’d never make a difference. So I started striking every Friday, anyway, but from 4pm onwards weekly; and the NISCN strike monthly, which I miss school for. On the four-month anniversary of me solo- striking, I started earlier and missed school, and I’ve been doing so ever since.
You’re frequently alone in your protests. Was there ever a time you thought about giving up? And, if there was, what was it that kept you going?
Yes, quite a lot in the beginning because I was just sitting there being ignored, so I felt as though it wouldn’t really matter whether I was sitting there or not. I’m still sitting alone but I have digital support from thousands of other solo strikers all across the world, and I attended a national fridaysforfuture meeting for Ireland and met other climate strikers from across the island.
You mention digital support from across the world. How has social media influenced this conflict for you?
Massively influenced it. I don’t know if I’d still be a striker today if I didn’t live in the age of the internet. Me and two friends, Helen and Grace, have co- founded “solo but not alone”. The purpose of this is to uplift, expose and raise awareness of climate strikers who are alone every Friday. We want to share the message that, although we may be alone physically, we are not truly alone: we’re all out there in our respective countries at the same time united behind the science and fighting for our future and I think there’s something really wholesome and motivating in that. Everyday, we highlight the brilliant work and tell the story of another solo striker and on Fridays we retweet lots of people all over the world.
Some people say you should be in school, and you’ve publicly agreed with them. You’re probably tired of hearing this, but if you could be back in school on Fridays, if there were no crisis, what do you think you’d like to study?
I’m currently going through my a levels and I’m studying biology, English literature and technology & design. I’d love to have a job in the media and maybe go to university but the dream is to get an apprenticeship somewhere like the BBC or National Geographic and not have to go to university!
Across the globe, climate change is ever more becoming the central topic of elections. This is also true in your part of the world. Tell us about your recent elections. What were the key issues? What promises were made?
I try to be completely non- partisan and not pick a party, because the effects of the climate crisis won’t spare you just because you are in a particular party. Especially since the political tensions where I live are very high… that doesn’t exactly help things. The promises being made are for us to be 97% carbon neutral by 2050, which is progress and quite ambitious, but still not even close to being good enough. According to the best available science, we need to be at net zero in terms of carbon neutrality by 2050 which means the UK must be carbon neutral by 2030. I think anyone who has read the IPCC Special Report on climate change 2018 and is ready to act upon its findings is what we need as a political figure in power.
The outlook for our species, and our planet, is quite grim. Does anything give you hope for the future?
Yes, the youth strike for climate movement.
If change is to happen, it must be a concerted effort. What can people do if they want to help?
You can join the strikes, and if you can’t physically then there are digital and silent strikes that you can try. If that’s not your thing, keeping the pressure up in other ways is essential, too. Things like emailing your local politicians, lobbying government, etc. Anything you can do, big or small, is welcome and needed. Even if you don’t think you can change the world, you could inspire someone else to think about the choices and actions they’re taking in their lives.
Learn more, get involved, or offer your support for the Fridays for Future movement by visiting their homepage, https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/.
Show your support for Anna by visiting her blog, annakernahan.wordpress.com, her Instagram account, @annakernahan_, or her Twitter page, @AnnaKernahan; or join Fridays for Future Belfast on Twitter: @BelfastFff.