The Kernel
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The Kernel

Undercover COP Day 5: Fridays4Future

In which your correspondent spends four hours dressed as an inflatable polar bear…

Taking the message to the Glasgow streets

[Again, we know this is *really, really* late — read on and you’ll find out why {TLDR: COP26 is knackering and I’m back at my day job}]

And so it was, the great day dawned — the day of the Fridays4Future march, a sort of children’s crusade in which people of all ages would in fact march (even though the ‘proper grown-up’ march was scheduled for the following day). Around two miles from the start point in Kelvingrove Park lay the rally at George Square, where Greta Thunberg and a host of other young speakers would address the assembled throng.

But first, we — and 30,000 other people — had to get there. And some of us would be doing it in an inflatable polar bear costume. ‘Some of us’ meaning, specifically, yours truly and @AtomicAstrid.

It’s at times like that, when you’re part of a moving crowd of 30,000 people, sweating inside a seven-foot-tall inflatable polar bear costume, desperately trying to walk in the damn thing’s stumpy legs while simultanously trying to wipe the condensation from the tiny, Panzer-like vision panel and talk to the journalist interviewing you, that you feel glad for having friends around you.

And we did — YGN members, resplendent in their by-now-familiar-to-COP-goers blue t-shirts and jackets, members of Voix du Nucléaire, Generation Atomic and more were all with us, with banners and placards aplenty.

It’s not just the solidarity and comradeship — you need a stack of help inside those things. First of all to get them on —it’s definitely a two-person job, especially when you’re standing in the middle of the street. Even if you weren’t, it’d still be impossible to do it yourself as you need someone to zip you up at the back.

Plus, they’re not really meant for walking — they’re meant for someone to wear while standing around at a marketing do, advertising double glazing or freezers or glacier mints or whatever. The stumpy legs are an aesthetic decision on the part of the costume’s designer, intended to make the bear cartoonish and lovable, or perhaps provide a token gesture of anatomical correctness; they were not designed for bonkers pro-nuclear campaigners to march two miles in. The best you can manage is a sort of waddling trot. Would I be able to keep up, or get steamrollered by the oncoming mass of humanity behind me? Would the suit be up the job, or would it disintegrate on the way, perhaps maliciously holed by some rapscallion or ne’er-do-well? Would the fan or the batteries give out, causing the whole thing to deflate like some doomed ursine zeppelin?

Or would it be me that wasn’t up to the job? It gets damn hot inside those things, even on a cool day in November. And the window steams up from condensation within minutes; a few minutes more, and the condensation is soaking the inside of the costume. How long would the march take? How long would I be inside that thing? On my feet the whole time, presumably? Just how long would conditions remain, um, bearable?

Worst of all, you stand a real chance of coming a cropper if you don’t have someone at your elbow to help you out occasionally. You simply can’t see a bloody thing inside there; the sole vision panel is roughly the size of a smartphone screen. Kerbs and obstacles below navel height are invisible. And you’ve no peripheral vision. And that was worse than the worst of all: it’d be entirely possible to very quickly get lost in the crowd (though to be fair, it’d be easy for people to spot you and come to your aid).

But —a huge but — there was even worse than worse than the worst of all. In that suit, you’re a highly visible target for anyone who isn’t perhaps quite as enthusiastic about nuclear power as you are. Moreover, with no peripheral vision, it’d be a simple matter for someone to just give you one good shove from behind, and things could get very nasty very quickly for the luckless inhabitant of the Ursus maritimus apparel. And given the type of crowd turning up, there are going to be a fair few of those people attending this march. Making the above course of events a distinct possibility.

It was therefore with a slight wobbliness of the knee that I clambered into the costume, feeling uncannily like at astronaut suiting up before the mission: “That’s one small step for a polar bear, one long waddling trot for polarbearkind”.

Truth be told, given the fact that I was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and light wool jacket — in case I had to marry Zion Lights again later that day, and had come in costume rather than don the very warm #NetZeroNeedsNuclear blue jacket — I was rather glad to be in there, where it eventually became pleasantly warm in comparison to the outside conditions. I must sadly admit your correspondent was not above a little self-interest in that regard.

What I truly hadn’t accounted for was the level of celebrity that being a large Arctic mammal would confer on me. Everybody wants a piece of you when you’re a polar bear. It came as quite a shock — small children enthralled, people of all ages wanting selfies, photographers and interviewers poking their lenses and furry microphones at you. I started to feel even more like Neil Armstrong. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant shock though, truth be told — but rest assured, your correspondent did not let his new-found fame go to his head. I like to think I’m the same polar bear I always was, y’know?

Mind you, you really have to inhabit the role — it’s no use phoning it in. You really have to, um, get inside the polar bear. People want to see that bear having fun — dancing, waving its arms around, pulling some moves, cutting some rug, behaving like the huge, happy, pro-nuclear carnivorous mammal that it would be if it understood the principals of atomic fission and how this can bring safe and abundant clean energy to the entire world while ameliorating climate change and leaving more room for nature to flourish. So yeah, a certain amount of energy and pizzazz is required for a successful performance. And holding that sign up makes your arms ache.

In all, we all made a pretty good spectacle, attracting various press interviewers, photographers and videographers both at the start, during and after the march.

We made BBC Scotland, carried out interviews with ABC News (US), Italian radio and more:

I’m the one on the left (BBC Scotland)

Including the Big Issue (yes, that’s me folks):

Sky TV (blink and you’ll miss it):


And Le Parisien, among numerous others:

I was glad the march passed without too much trouble. We only had one serious incident — in which an antinuclear protester chose to pick on the physically smallest member of our party (the fact that the assailant was male and our comrade was female made matters worse, but that’s the way cowards and bullies operate). Luckily other members of the team stepped in to help and de-escalate the situation, doing a marvellous job, and the march passed without further aggravation.

Two miles and four hours later, without having had a drink or a bite to eat (why in Hades’ name didn’t I think to bring some inside the suit with me??), I finally said goodbye to my aptly named Melty persona and got my peripheral vision back. We didn’t stay for Greta’s speech — we didn’t need to. We’d got the message out, to fellow protesters and media alike, and that was what mattered.

And that was by no means the only effort made today — many more of the blue army seemed to be everywhere.

A clip was aired on major German channel ZDF of Arun and Miguel singing the praises of Hinkley Point C in the UK (see 20mins in):

Arun also found time to interview IAEA Director General Grossi (where do both of them get their energy? Have they been eating uranium pellets??)

Alice was interviewed by Brazilian TV, and some even met noted British TV presenter and explorer Bear Grylls, who voiced his support for nuclear, saying “No technology is perfect — let’s use everything we’ve got.”

It’s Bear Grylls in a scout uniform!

‘Using everything we’ve got’ could well be the motto of pro-nuclear campaigners at COP26. We’re certainly giving it everything we’ve got. At least the bigwigs at the New Nuclear Watch Institute reception that evening thought so; it’s nice to bask in the credit for what you’ve done sometimes. And then go home, go to bed, and prepare to do it all over again the next day…




The Generation Atomic magazine. Our latest thoughts on the role of nuclear in a clean energy future.

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Rob Loveday

Rob Loveday

I geek out and write about various topics — the main ones being nuclear energy and palaeontology.

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