Scotland's festivals and climate awareness: 'If we respond to this crisis, we produce a better world'

Scotland's festivals and climate awareness: 'If we respond to this crisis, we produce a better world'

credit: Neil Jarvie

With the UN's COP26 environmental conference coming to Glasgow in November, we take a look at how festivals are increasingly responding to the climate crisis

'For a long time, festivals might have thought that if they start talking about climate change, their audience might not be interested, or they'll receive criticism for not focusing on literature, music or theatre,' says Catriona Patterson, green arts project manager at Creative Carbon Scotland. But with audiences now increasingly aware of the climate emergency, it's become easier for festivals to stick their heads above the parapet.

'Content-wise, we're seeing more artistic work that's directly talking about the climate crisis,' says Patterson. 'And festivals programming these works is a strong way they can use their influence. The more of it there is, the more normal it will be to talk about climate change and climate action.'

Though there's no curation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this urgency was organically mirrored in the latest edition of the world's largest open-access art festival. 'Work at the Fringe always reflects what's going on in the world, and sustainability was the inspiration for not just a range of shows but, in one case, a venue's entire programme,' says a Fringe Society spokesperson, citing BoxedIn Theatre's pop-up venue The Greenhouse.

But they were far from the only ones: from Alanna Mitchell's Sea Sick, to Cryptic's Flow Country-inspired installation Below the Blanket, Fringe 2019 featured a powerful roster of shows examining the environmental cost of human activity. Organisations like Edinburgh Science make it their mission to communicate these truths to the public, particularly through the capital's science festival. 'As the peril of climate change sinks in, people are beginning to appreciate that human activities are causing something on an unprecedented scale that imperils entire ecosystems, our whole way of life for humans and other species,' says Simon Gage, Edinburgh Science's CEO and director.

Just as Patterson insists on a festival's power to move hearts and minds, Edinburgh Science Festival works to redefine the paradigm by programming events that imagine how the future will look if we take action. 'If we respond to this crisis, we produce a better world,' says Gage. 'So rather than people burying their heads in their hands and saying, "oh it's all terrible", we're saying, actually it's a tough problem but it's one that we can respond to, and here are the ways.'

Scotland's festivals and climate awareness: 'If we respond to this crisis, we produce a better world'

One of the challenges facing festivals, however, is the issue of their own carbon footprint. Travel makes up the largest percentage of their emissions, so part of Patterson's role is helping organisers encourage sustainable travel among audiences and participants. Think of it in terms of a travel hierarchy. 'The best way you can get to us is by foot,' she says. 'Then it's by bike, by bus, then by train. If it's a difficult place to get to, festivals can think about how they work with local transport providers to make sure that the provision is enhanced for the duration.' Failing this, festivals can signpost participants to car-sharing programmes or constructive carbon-offsetting schemes.

But what about festivals that operate on an international scale? Without viable, eco-efficient transport alternatives, organisers are looking to reduce. While the Fringe Society provides a toolkit on sustainable travel, they also felt it important to lead by example. 'Our live-streamed FringeCasts present a sustainable way of talking artists through the process of coming to the Fringe, largely replacing the old method of presenting such sessions in person,' says the Fringe Society spokesperson.

But Gage insists that the business-as-usual model must be challenged, acknowledging that the festivals which Edinburgh Science stage abroad require a rethink. 'Festivals must embrace the notion that some of the ways they do things will require fundamental changes.' And bringing about this change will require festivals to re-examine their priorities. 'There isn't a quick fix to taking carbon out of flying, and I think we have to remind ourselves that all festivals were brilliant before flying was cheap. So there's a rethink needed that shifts the way we value and programme things.'

'Festivals become a microcosm of society for a defined period of time,' says Patterson. 'So they're a good environment to test new ways of working and behaving in a mad but controlled experiment.' Therefore if festivals are a reflection of the values and challenges our society faces, then they can – and must – become a force for positive environmental change.

And this change can only be a good thing. Gage recalls a quote from Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and recipient of the Edinburgh Award at last year's Edinburgh Science Festival. 'She said that this is the best crisis we've ever had because almost all of its solutions make the world a better place. Moving to green energy and pollution-free transportation, and giving ecosystems the capacity to thrive is a necessary part of climate change, and just makes sense, forever.'

COP26, Glasgow, Mon 9–Fri 20 Nov.

COP26

A globally significant event as the world comes together to address climate change. COP26 will be the biggest conference ever staged in Scotland, welcoming participants from all over the world.

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