As the summer’s second heatwave came to an end, around 150 people joined a funereal procession through Exeter city centre to highlight the destruction caused by climate change and to promote the urgent need for radical action if further devastation is to be avoided.
Pall bearers carrying a coffin representing the death of the natural world were led by a mute chief mourner, head shrouded, who slowly beat a drum to announce the cortège that followed. Dressed in black from head to toe with faces powdered white, its members offered onlookers origami lilies carrying the names of extinct British species.
A large congregation of mourners walked in their wake, following a banner emblazoned with the Extinction Rebellion hourglass symbol and the words: “Business as usual = death”.
After gathering at Southernhay, the mourners set off along Bedford Street before turning down the High Street, where a local band who had been entertaining a rowdy crowd changed tempo to accompany the cortège with elegiac music.
Passing the Guildhall, the procession turned at Broadgate to cross Cathedral Green before heading back up Cathedral Close towards St Martin’s Church. It wound through Princesshay then turned at Eastgate to head for the graveyard at St Sidwell’s, where the coffin was delivered to its final resting place.
Celia Villa-Landa, a 75 year-old grandmother of six, was among the mourners. She said: “I’m here because of my grandchildren. I want them to have the world I grew up in. I’m really very frightened by the way things are speeding up. I was reading this morning about wildfires all around the Arctic. You can see the smoke from space. I just find it terrifying.”
She was referring to hundreds of wildfires that have recently broken out in Siberia, Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, emitting as much carbon dioxide in June as Sweden does in a whole year.
Celia, who was a city councillor in the Stoke Hill and Beacon Heath areas of Exeter in the 1980s, added: “We have to persuade people to stop flying, to eat less beef. The children really care. They want us to do something.”
Another mourner, Anouska Kirby, a primary school teaching assistant and mother of two, expressed similar concerns. She said she had decided to take action “because I want a future for my children. In 2050 they will be 35 and 44 years old. I want them to have a decent world to inhabit.”
When asked how she came to be involved, she said: “I kept thinking I haven’t got time. I’ve got too much going on. I’ve got a family and I’m working. And then I thought: actually I’m just making excuses. I just need to get on with it and do something.”
“I’ve been reading up on climate change for a while now and it’s starting to feel like I can’t just ignore this any more. And if I only make a tiny bit of difference, even if I don’t make any difference, at least I will have tried.”
Anouska doesn’t drive and had travelled into Exeter by train from Crediton. She was aware both city and county councils had recently announced initiatives to develop carbon reduction plans but said she thought action was needed now.
“I’m worried that it needs to be done very, very urgently, not in a few years. Lots of people are choosing to ignore it. Ignorance is easier than actually facing the truth.”
The cortège took two hours to travel from Southernhay to St Sidwell’s, bringing traffic to a standstill and causing some onlookers to complain about delays to buses.
Ashley Carr, a local Conservative Party campaigner who stood in St Thomas in the recent city council elections, said he appreciated the message that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with, but suggested that disrupting traffic, including buses, was going too far.
He also defended the Conservative government’s record on the issue: “It’s not business as usual to get a whole country to be net zero, to produce no carbon emissions, in 30 years. And they want it done by 2025?”
A passing Stagecoach driver also pointed out that buses obstructed by the procession were standlng idle with their engines running, although she added that the most recent models were fitted with automatic engine stop/start systems similar to many modern cars.
She nevertheless said she was “very supportive” of the protestors, saying “they are achieving something because people are stopping and looking”.
Jay Quick, a personal trainer, agreed. He had been struck by the silence that fell across Cathedral Green when the procession passed through. He said he found the protest poignant: “People take notice of something quiet, something still”.
Saturday’s protest came two days after what has since been confirmed as the UK’s hottest day on record, when a peak temperature of 38.7°C was recorded in Cambridge. Temperature records were simultaneously broken in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Paris endured 42.6°C.
Peak temperatures in Northern Europe are expected to rise much further. A recent report predicted that London’s warmest month will be nearly 6°C hotter by 2050, matching Melbourne now, and is likely to be accompanied by severe drought.
Meanwhile, the impact of such changes is already causing mass migration at more southerly latitudes.
Colin Barrington, a cortège pall bearer, said: “Climate change deniers will say there’s always been these extremes of weather, there’s always been hot weather. Yes, there have been extremes, but they’ve been localised.”
“Now, the whole globe is experiencing this. Australia: the hottest temperatures ever. The Far East: the hottest temperatures ever. The whole of Europe. It’s not localised: it’s now the whole globe.”
Amber Wren, who led the mourners, added: “Other countries are not that far away from us. They’re experiencing droughts, wildfires, crop loss, starvation, forced migration.”
She said the protest had been “really effective” and had had a “powerful impact”, adding: “There will be continuous action. Extinction Rebellion is decentralised so there are many, many groups across the country, all deciding and taking their own localised actions. So we’ll see many, many smaller localised actions.”
World Car Free Day takes place the same weekend. Exeter’s councils have yet to announce plans to participate.