Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg attracts the younger residents of Bristol, the UK’s greenest city, at massive rally for climate change.
Soaked, woke and angry though they might have been, the younger residents of Bristol were in carnival mood as the Greta Thunberg phenomenon descended yesterday.
Britain’s greenest city (Bristol has just announced both an ‘ecological emergency’ and a ban on diesel cars) was both thrilled and honoured to welcome the pint-sized Pied Piper of eco-activism to its heart.
Schools and colleges across the city emptied – with or without official permission – to pay homage to the Swedish teenager.
And she did not disappoint, delivering a passionate denunciation of world leaders who ‘sweep their mess under the rug and ask children to clean up for them’ before leading a chaotic but good-natured march through torrential rain across the city.
The atmosphere was closer to Glastonbury-meets-royal visit than a normal demonstration as tens of thousands gathered on Bristol’s College Green, treading the grass into a quagmire.
It was certainly the first demo I have ever attended where the organisers tried to get the crowd going with a nursery rhyme – ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.
But then the area immediately in front of the makeshift stage had been reserved for children of primary school age and their parents.
Behind them, separated by a steel crowd barrier, stood thousands of teenagers and students – at least 20,000 of them – plus plenty of grown-ups.
The police had warned of ‘inadequate’ safety precautions and the risk of injury. This had infuriated the organisers, a vocal teenage outfit called ‘Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate’ who accused the police of ‘patronising’ them.
Having pooh-poohed the concerns of the police, the organisers looked somewhat shame-faced as they had to make repeated pleas over the public address system for urgent first aid in sections of the crowd (fortunately, there were no serious incidents).
Most were in high spirits – hardly surprising given that most of this crowd were missing school of some sort in order to catch a glimpse of a global celebrity.
In the two years since she started her school strike to draw attention to the plight of the planet, Greta Thunberg has had two Nobel nominations, been lauded by world leaders and has just had a new species (a Borneo snail) named after her.
Some of the multitude were here with permission, like the children from Dolphin Primary School in Montpelier, Bristol. They had been allowed out on the proviso that they had to be in school by lunch.
‘The children feel very strongly about climate change,’ said Sarah Eaves, a school parent and one of the chaperones for around 25 very excited youngsters, many of whom had made their own banners.
Other schools had warned that any no-shows would go down as an ‘unauthorised absence’, though no one seemed unduly worried.
After several speeches from local activists, the crowd began a chant of ‘Greta! Greta!’ as word spread that the star turn had arrived (via train and electric car).
Unlike the previous speakers, hers was a modest entrance. Looking much younger than her 17 years, she walked nonchalantly, almost shyly, up the steps in her oversized yellow anorak, white woolly hat, grey tracksuit bottoms and grey boots.
The crowd went bonkers, giving her a proper A-list, rock star welcome. Among a tearful few – Greta’s most ardent devotees – this was nothing short of a Second Coming.
She didn’t talk for long – no more than five minutes of familiar rhetoric – but it was impressive, nonetheless.
‘I’m so happy to be here in Bristol with all of you,’ she began, evincing little to suggest it.
Her tone ranged from the despairing to the severe but always clear and forceful, with only an occasional glance down at the script she had prepared on her mobile phone.
‘This is an emergency. People are already suffering and dying from the consequences of the climate and environmental emergency. But it will get worse. And still, this emergency is being completely ignored by the politicians, the media and those in power. Basically, nothing is being done to halt this crisis despite all the beautiful words and promises by our elected officials. So what did you do during this crucial time, what will you do right now?’
You could barely hear a boot squelch. The crowd were listening in total silence – until her call to arms.
‘Well, I will not stand aside and watch, I will not be silent while the world is on fire. World leaders are behaving like children so it falls on us to be the adults in the room.’
The only specific detail was her praise for local activists who have just fought a successful campaign to block the expansion of Bristol Airport.
There was, though, no mention of the mega-polluters such as China (which is building 15 brand new airports every year).
Greta went on: ‘Activism works. So I’m telling you to act. We are being betrayed by those in power and they are failing us but we will not back down. And if you feel threatened by that, then I have some very bad news for you. We will not be silenced because we are the change and change is coming whether you like it or not. Thank you and let’s march.’ And with that, they did.
Office workers leaned out of their windows. Shops emptied as the public turned out to look at this curious spectacle.
People clambered on top of walls and railings yelling and waving. ‘Greta! I love you!’ shrieked a chap dressed as Superman, from the top of a bus shelter. Not a flicker of reaction from beneath the yellow hood at the front of the march.
Most of the passers-by were glad to see her, though not all. ‘What’s all this about?’ asked Luke, Alex and Brendan, a trio of builders on a day off.
I explained it was Greta Thunberg and a climate change demo. ‘Never heard of her,’ they shrugged. ‘It’s all a load of b*******,’ added Luke.
Retired factory worker John Lawrence, 73, had been waiting for hours at a suspended bus stop.
‘I don’t mind her coming but I wish they wouldn’t mess everything up for everyone else,’ he said.
By now social media was in full madhouse mode as Greta’s fanbase raged against those demanding to know why 20,000 West Country children were being allowed to bunk off school. Here on the streets, she had thousands singing and dancing in her wake.
Yet through it all, aside from an occasional wave or half-smile, Greta appeared to be blissfully detached from this circus.
As she reached the Hippodrome, she was whisked off by car – electric, of course – while the herd marched back to College Green.
After yesterday’s vast crowds and dreadful weather, it is now College Brown.