The worsening effects of climate change and hotter, longer, drier summers are having an effect on our big summer outdoor festivals. There are the usual concerns: is there enough drinking water, sunscreen? What about shaded areas and ventilation in tents?
But climate change has changed how large-scale public events run in previously unforeseen ways. Take Adelaide festival, for example, which wrapped up on Sunday. In recent years, the festival has run a venue on the River Torrens – The Palais, a floating pontoon, a nod to Adelaide’s 1920s floating dancehall, Palais de Danse, that sank in 1928. This year, the Palais was hosting events including a morning coffee and papers forum, as well as live music such as Washington and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever.
But Rob Brookman, the festival’s executive director, says that the hot, dry summer and preceding dry winter has caused the water levels in the Torrens to fall – and that’s a worry for the pontoon. “If the level drops too far, the Palais could become bogged on the bottom and be unusable,” Brookman tells Guardian Australia.
“On the other hand there is another recent climate-change related development of algal blooms in the Torrens. The only way to deal with the blooms is for the Department of Environment and Water to flush the river, which of course lifts the [water] level. So in a bizarre way we are almost hoping for an algal bloom so that the river is flushed and our pontoon stays afloat.”
The opening weekend of Adelaide festival this year was marked by a heatwave, with temperatures hitting 41C. That did not deter thousands of people converging on festival sites, as well as the venues of other events such as the circus tents of the Fringe festival, trackside at Clipsal 500 or in the relatively cool, air conditioned climate of the Concert Hall.
Brookman says climate change-proofing a festival does not happen overnight. “Climate change continues to be a boiling frog situation,” he says. “It’s far more gradual. The festival has dealt with all kinds of weather over the years but increasingly what we are dealing with is a less predictable pattern.”
For most festivals, adjusting to climate change means managing the increasing likelihood of extreme heat.
Laneway festival, an outdoor music festival that runs in Australia’s capital cities at the height of summer, has a range of measures in place to deal with extreme heat. Organiser Danny Rogers says to combat the effects of extreme weather, the festival provides free drinking water taps, “additional shade”, misting fans, “additional first aid resources”, water at stages, hoses at stages and “patron and staff messaging with weather updates, sun protection and appropriate clothing via socials, screens and staff induction pre- and during event.”
Perth had a relatively mild summer but the Perth festival director, Wendy Martin, says she has been careful in her programming to account for more extreme temperatures. Five Short Blasts, an outdoor performance in Fremantle, took place at sunrise and sunset.
“We do that for the beauty of the light,” Martin says. “But you don’t want to be on an open boat on a river in the middle of the day. It’s too hot and the sun is too sharp.”
The festival has a large outdoor venue, the Chevron Gardens, which Martin says is only used at night. “You have to be mindful of the incredible heat when you are building venues,” she says.
At the Perth writers’ festival, which occurs in February as part of Perthfestival, author talks mostly take place in lecture theatres and tents in shady, tree-lined grounds of the University of Western Australia. The tents used to be air conditioned, Martin says, but the festival made the decision to use less carbon, so the tents are now open to encourage cross breezes and natural airflow.
Likewise at the Byron Bay writers’ festival. Even though it’s held in winter, the weather has become increasingly unpredictable. Artistic director Edwina Johnson says, “We did make a decision to increase shaded area capacity in 2017 – more to keep our audience comfortable in all weather.”
Martin says artists themselves are also tackling the themes of climate change in their shows. But not yet on the cards for Australia’s major festivals is reducing their carbon footprint by cutting the number of international acts that fly to Australia to perform.
“Air travel is one of the gnarliest problems, in terms of ethical issues,” Brookman says. “Eliminating international travel would have a really deleterious effect. It would mean our world shrinks in terms of communication of culture and across borders. I always believed if you are prepared to listen to another culture’s music and read their literature it’s a lot harder to demonise and see them as the other.”
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