It was the type of reception more often afforded to rock stars than environmental activists. But when Greta Thunberg took to the stage in the middle of Bristol on Friday morning, an estimated 20,000-strong crowd of climate change protesters roared with boundless excitement at witnessing in the flesh the unlikely global teenage icon.
It was the 10th “strike” by Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate, part of the international movement that has seen large numbers of children skip school to call on world leaders to do more to tackle the climate emergency. But this one was special. Organised in just a week, following news that the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist would be visiting, it was an opportunity for those attending not only to highlight environmental issues but also to catch a glimpse of the girl who inspired a mass youth movement by missing school on Fridays to protest in front of the Swedish parliament.
“She's an eco rock star,” said Rosie Marcus, 21, a student at the University of Bristol who attended the rally in College Green and the subsequent march through the city led by Miss Thunberg.
Another student, Freya Scott-Turner, 20, went one better: “She's like Gandhi. She's so cool. I love her.”
As the rain poured down, transforming parts of the ground into a mudbath and lending the event a soggy festival vibe, chants of “Greta! Greta!” filled the air. Thousands of mobile phones were raised above heads, like a salute, to honour the moment.
Stern, uncompromising and brutal
The girl herself cut a diminutive figure as, at 11.45am, she rose to the platform to speak. But there was nothing small or apologetic about her address to the drenched crowds gathered below. “This is an emergency,” she announced. “People are already suffering and dying as a consequence of climate and environmental emergency. But still it will get worse and still this emergency has been completely ignored by the politicians, media and those in power.”
The message was stern, uncompromising, brutal – but necessary, according to those who listened, rapt, as she attacked the adults who are failing to do enough to save the planet from catastrophic warming.
“I will not stand aside and watch,” Miss Thunberg continued. “I will not be silenced while the world is on fire. Will you?”
“No!” roared the crowd faithfully.
“Politicians are behaving like children, so it falls to us to be the adults in the room,” she added.
No age barriers
In fact, there were quite a few adults in this particular room – or sodden open-air space – already. While a sizable proportion of the crowd were indeed the “youth” advertised in the event’s name, the ages of those who travelled from all over Bristol and beyond ranged from newborn babies to the elderly. Parents brought their young children; teenagers holding signs saying “I should be in school” brought themselves (with their parents’ approval, many said); and older adults turned out in their droves, too.
“It’s so bad, even the kids with social anxiety have come,” read one placard.
“Did the planet consent to being —— this hard?” inquired another, whose creator was evidently more concerned about climate change than the fact that young children were present.
Miss Thunberg’s speech, which followed others by strike organisers and Mya-Rose Craig, a teenager birdwatcher known to her followers as “BirdgirlUK”, lasted only five minutes. But it was bold and to the point. “We will not be silenced because we are change, and change is coming whether you like it or not,” she finished.
Verdict of the Greta fans
The crowd liked it very much. “It made me very emotional,” said Scott-Turner.
Alec Elsden, a 24-year-old student at the University of the West of England, said: “It was surreal seeing someone in the flesh who you've heard so much about.”
But if the younger generations are often characterised by their awareness of environmental issues, Marcus was not convinced they are all equally committed to saving the planet.
“None of my friends care enough,” she said. “We're really into fast fashion in a way that would horrify older generations, but it's kind of being pushed down our throats with the targeting you get on Instagram.”
Yet surrounding her was evidence of the genuine fear so many young people share. “You'll die of old age," read one especially poignant placard. “I’ll die of climate change.”
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