Taylor Swift's Eras tour confronts climate crisis

Taylor Swift's Eras tour confronts climate crisis

Fans wait outside Nilton Santos stadium for the Taylor Swift concert on Monday, following the death of a fan due to the heat during the first concert, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. REUTERS
Fans wait outside Nilton Santos stadium for the Taylor Swift concert on Monday, following the death of a fan due to the heat during the first concert, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. REUTERS

Taylor Swift, one of the world's most successful and wealthiest pop stars, has come face to face with the climate crisis in Brazil during her global Eras tour.

Fans struggled through a Friday night performance in Rio de Janeiro as extreme heat and humidity hit the city, with many complaining about poor access to water. Last week, temperatures in Rio topped 39.1C, but it was the humidity that made the unseasonal heat even more dangerous. The heat index -- essentially the "feels-like" temperature combining heat and humidity -- reached 59.3C on Friday and 59.7C on Saturday. The show for Saturday was postponed until Monday due to concerns for people's safety.

Much of the focus has been centred on a tragedy: 23-year-old Ana Clara Benevides died in hospital after collapsing at the show. Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paolo reported that Benevides suffered two cardiac arrests, though officials have not confirmed the cause of death. A video also showed Swift appearing to struggle to breathe on stage during her performance that night.

Swift's gig isn't the first to be affected by climate change. According to Billboard, more than 30 major concerts have been impacted by extreme weather this year. Three Pearl Jam shows in Europe were cancelled after singer Eddie Vedder got throat damage while playing an outdoor gig in France affected by heat, dust and wildfire smoke, for example. Elsewhere, torrential rains and hurricanes led to evacuations, cancellations and postponements of shows by artists including Elton John and My Morning Jacket.

This is a wake-up call for the industry to adapt.

It's been a scorching year for South America. During September, countries in the region experienced unseasonal spring heat with temperatures exceeding 40C in central and northern Brazil. The World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative found a strong influence from human-induced climate change on the intensity and likelihood of the heatwave. The region is also being affected by a strengthening El Nino -- a naturally occurring climate pattern that warms global temperatures.

The combination of heat and humidity seen over the weekend in Rio is extremely dangerous. Humans cannot survive long in so-called wet-bulb temperatures above 35C, as we can't cool ourselves enough by sweating, which can lead to complications of heatstroke such as cardiovascular problems, seizures and organ failure.

As I've explored before, disasters happen when extreme events clash with vulnerabilities. Several factors made Swift's concert-goers more exposed, including reports of dangerous crowding and an inadequate distribution of water. Fans reportedly weren't allowed to bring in their own bottles -- a rule that has since been scrapped for future concerts.

This all highlights just how important adaptation is. While decarbonisation is vital, the climate crisis is already affecting events. Thus, we need plans and infrastructure to adapt to what we've already locked in. Unfortunately, we're terrible at this. Adaptation funding remains a small fraction of the money going towards mitigating emissions. Only one in five companies have a plan in place to adapt to global warming's physical risks, according to data from the S&P Global Corporate Sustainability Assessment. Governments in many regions have also been notoriously bad at this.

While the National Institute of Meteorology of Brazil does have a multi-hazard early warning system (EWS) that encompasses extreme heat, its information about trigger indicators, update frequency and monitoring stations is not detailed, posing questions about its effectiveness.

Research by Marisol Yglesias-Gonzalez, a consultant at the World Health Organization, shows that existing heat EWS in South America are typically city- and temperature-based only, which discounts the threats posed by humidity. In their analysis of the September heatwave in South America, WWA scientists were not able to identify any heat-action plans in the region, which would help authorities and companies respond to warnings.

Swifties experienced what happened when these plans don't exist. Swift and her team made a sensible decision postponing Saturday night's gig, and the Brazilian government was right to step in to enforce emergency rules allowing personal water bottles at concerts and festivals while dictating that organisers must provide free and easily accessible drinking water.

The gig organiser, Time4Fun, also stepped up its action plan after Friday to add new free water distribution points, allow entry with sealed water bottles and strengthen medical care services. But better adaptation planning from all involved would have helped avoid the terrible situation in the first place.

I believe in big music events, and giving everyone access to the artists they love. Music, especially performed live, is a source of joy and social connection, which is more important than ever in these divided and fraught times. But we're living in the climate era, and as Swift sings in Mastermind: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." ©2023 Bloomberg

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.

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