Around 200 people took part in Exeter’s Youth Strike 4 Climate on Friday 14 February, marking the first anniversary of regular protests against lack of action in the city to tackle the climate crisis.
Young people across the world have participated in regular strikes since Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg staged a protest outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018 holding a sign that read: “School strike for the climate”.
Students from local schools, colleges and the University of Exeter were joined by parents and other supporters on a march through the city centre to County Hall.
The protestors formed a roadblock at the junction of Magdalen Street, South Street and Western Way, bringing traffic to a standstill for around five minutes.
Some motorists reacted by honking, while others shouted in anger at the protestors, but most waited peaceably.
When a fast-moving ambulance approached the crowd parted to let it pass unimpeded. The march then moved off along Holloway Street towards Topsham Road.
When the march reached County Hall, the protestors formed a human chain around the buildings, linking hands in a long line that stretched from Topsham Road through the cloisters and round to Bellair House.
Here young people addressed the crowd with the help of a sound system mounted on a bicycle trailer, speaking passionately about the climate crisis. The youngest was seven years old.
The school strikers chose County Hall as their destination to highlight Devon County Council’s role as a key regional decision-maker, and the urgency and scale at which it must act to tackle the climate emergency that it declared twelve months ago.
Earlier that morning, three hours before the march began, protestors had hung banners from Western Way footbridge which read: “More Buses. Less Traffic. Zero Carbon.”
However, Exeter City Council employees arrived to remove the banners within minutes.
Taylor, 14, said: “The banners were secured safely with zip-ties. As council workers took them down, I attempted to block their way.
“But they said I would be arrested if I didn’t move.”
The protestors pointed out that the council’s decision to remove the banners appeared at odds with Blueprint For A Carbon Neutral Exeter, a document which seeks to set out “all the things that Exeter will need to have in place to be carbon neutral”.
The document is published by Exeter City Futures, the organisation asked by Exeter City Council to lead on the council’s commitment to making the city carbon neutral by 2030.
It includes increasing bus passenger numbers, reducing congestion and removing non-essential motorised vehicles altogether from the city centre among its carbon reduction prescriptions.
Diana Moore, Green Party councillor, who attended the protest, said: “We need people in positions of power to listen to young people.”
However, the twenty page document only mentions young people once, proposing “to educate and engage young people in Exeter about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and their role in our city.”
Youth striker Jess, 21, said: “The UN Sustainable Development Goals are problematic: they fail to address the fact that sustainability and development are mutually incompatible.
“The goals focus on continued economic growth that relies on the old industrial model, with its ever-increasing consumption, production and extraction of natural resources.
“This approach fails to address the inequalities that are at the heart of our social, economic and environmental problems. We cannot deal with the climate crisis this way.
“The Exeter City Futures blueprint is insulting. It is all aspiration, no substance.”
Exeter City Council did not reply to requests for comment on the arrest threat, the similarities between the banners hung on Western Way footbridge and statements in the Exeter City Futures blueprint, and the blueprint’s youth education proposals.
A spokesperson for Exeter City Council said: “We agree with the premise of the protest and are currently in talks with the owners of the banners to find a suitable and safe location for their display.”
The next Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate will take place on Friday 13 March.
Greta Thunberg is joining the school strike in Bristol today, where 25,000 people are expected to gather before bringing traffic to a standstill in parts of the city.