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Saoirse Exton, from O’Briensbridge. Photograph by Eugene McCafferty

Clare eco-activist set to ‘Rise’ at African conference


AN O’Briensbridge climate change activist is looking forward with a great sense of anticipation to meeting other worldwide recipients of a prestigious scholarship during a three-week stint in South Africa next summer, writes Dan Danaher.

Saoirse Exton is one of the inaugural 100 Rise Global Winners, part of a $1 billion programme funded by philanthropists Wendy and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and executive chairman of its parent company, Alphabet Inc.

The lifetime programme aims to foster collaboration and new projects from young people to help solve the world’s thorniest problems.
Rise winners will receive access to higher education scholarships, career development and funding for projects they create for public benefit.

They also receive an annual three-week residential summit with the other winners, and mentorship and internship opportunities in their fields of interest and access to their colleagues in the global winner network.

Because the costs of college degrees vary widely around the world, the prize for each winner also will vary.

It is expected training and workshops will be provided during the three-week summit from mid July where Ms Exton is looking forward to meeting other Rise winners in person.

Depending on what Covid-19 restrictions are necessary at the time, Ms Exton hopes to get to know other Rise Winners at this residential summit.

Her mother, Geraldine saw an article about the Rise programme on BBC News. Even though Ms Exton entered, she didn’t expect to be one of the few who were chosen across the world.

“When I was first selected in the shortlist of 500 I thought they may not have had enough applicants. I thought I would be cut off eventually, but then I won it.

“I was surprised to win it because I am from Europe and come from a privileged background compared to others who are less well off and spoke in videos about how they couldn’t afford to go to university.

“I was in the Netherlands when I found out I had won it. It felt surreal, it still feels a bit surreal.

It was amazing to win this scholarship.

“This scholarship programme has a lot of potential. I have never been to South Africa before so that is a great opportunity. This trip will be fully funded, which is amazing.”

Next year, Ms Exton can apply for funding from the Rise board for a specific project. Funding is also available to defray the cost of attending university on a “needs basis”.

It is anticipated more clarity will be provided on precise funding allocations at a later date.

As the programme evolves, Ms Exton believes she will be provided with mentorship training.

By pure chance, Ms Exton has already met two of the global winners – Lydia Nottingham from the United Kingdom two years ago in Switzerland and Meera Dasgupta from the United States of America at COP 26 in Glasgow.

The O’Briensbridge environmentalist also keeps in touch with other winners in a group chat and they all follow each other on social media.

Commenting on COP26, she said while it was very interesting to be in Glasgow, access to some of the plenary conferences were restricted due to Covid-19 restrictions and the lack of special passes, despite the fact she had an observer delegate pass.

She expressed concern that the largest group of people from any country were the 503 delegates from fossil fuel companies.

“After COP26, I discovered it was responsible for more greenhouse gases and pollution compared with the previous conference. A lot of structures that were built were not sustainably constructed in terms of energy conservation.”

While she believes carbon taxes are good in principle, she stressed they shouldn’t be used just to shame people from using fossil fuels, and called for a new focus on fossil fuel companies investing in renewable forms of energy.

“Climate change is also a social issue. It is unfair the cost of living is going up. There are economic systems that use resources in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way. We need to look at these alternative economic systems.”

Last year, Ms Exton was chosen as one of only two Europeans and 13 other youth leaders on a C40 Global Youth and Mayor’ Forum, which will work together to shape how the vision of a Global Green New Deal can be made a reality in cities across the world.

The Global Youth and Mayors forum is part of C40’s Global Youth Initiative, announced by Mayor of Los Angeles and Chair of C40, Eric Garcetti, at the 2019 C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen.

Youth members were selected from each continent, with additional representation from continents with more than one billion people in order to ensure that the Forum is representative of global youth and perspectives from across the world.

Having applied to C40 Team, she was selected to become a youth climate change leader. In 2020, she was presented with an Outstanding Achievement Award as part of the national Climate Ambassador programme.

The Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh student started her year as a climate ambassador with training from An Taisce in Galway on January 25, 2020.

She participated in numerous climate strikes outside local authority buildings in Limerick City as part of Fridays for Future Limerick, apart from a break during Covid-19 lockdowns, and helped set up a climate hustings for the last General Election. The climate strikes included marching from Arthur’s Quay car park to City Hall in Limerick.

In August 2019, she attended a meeting of global Fridays for Future activists in Switzerland to discuss climate-related issues, protest, have fun and make decisions about ongoing goals for Fridays For Future Europe.

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