Taylor Swift concert tragedy highlights dangers of climate change

The death of a Taylor Swift fan in the midst of a heat wave in Brazil is another sign that we’re not doing enough to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

Scientific models have accurately predicted for years that global warming leads to more extreme and frequent heat waves, says Paulo Artaxo, a Brazilian atmospheric physicist and a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“There’s no reason for any surprise when one of these events happens,” he said. “Yet all countries, not only Brazil, are very late in implementing an adaptation strategy to minimize the impact on populations.”

Ana Clara Benevides, 23, collapsed inside Rio de Janeiro’s Nilton Santos stadium on Nov. 17 and died later in hospital. A report on the cause of her death is expected in about 30 days.  Thermometers in the city hit a peak of 43.8C (110.8F) on Nov. 18, the highest temperature recorded since at least 2014, when the government’s alert system began monitoring.

The heat was made worse by high humidity, which made it feel closer to 60C. And there was no relief at night, with minimum temperatures almost hitting 39C, according to Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology. Daytime temperatures have eased to below 40C in recent days.

South America has been experiencing an unusually hot and dry spring this year, in part due to the El Niño weather phenomenon. A 10-day heat wave that hit central Brazil at the end of August and early September was made 100 times more likely by climate change, according to a study conducted by World Weather Attribution. The network of scientists uses a peer-reviewed method to determine the influence of global warming on extreme weather events.

The authors of that paper couldn’t identify any heat action plans in Brazil. Raising awareness about the dangers of heat, encouraging people to stay indoors and hydrate, implementing early warning systems and reinforcing emergency services can reduce heat strokes and death, they wrote.

“It’s very hard to prepare the population against heat waves, especially in humid climates like most of Brazil,” Artaxo said. “High humidity with high temperatures are the perfect combination for stronger health impacts.”

Accounts by several fans suggest organizers didn’t adequately respond to warnings of extreme heat by Brazilian meteorological agencies. “They were not distributing water despite the heat, the prices were abusive and there were almost no sellers in the stadium,” said Julia Matos, a 23-year-old fan who attended the concert on Nov. 17. “The amount of people was insane, there weren’t chairs for everyone, people were all over each other.”

Many fans who got in line early for the concert could not stand the heat and ended up giving up their place, some so weak they had to be evacuated in wheelchairs, she said. Those who stayed fanned themselves throughout the show while workers confiscated water bottles and food because these items weren’t allowed inside the stadium.

During the concert, some attendees started chanting for water, holding up empty bottles in the air to catch the singer’s attention. Swift halted the show multiple times, making requests from the stage for the organizers to distribute water.

“She took quick actions and that might have played a role,” said Milad Haghani, a crowd safety expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “We don’t know if there would have been more casualties if she had not brought attention to the situation on the pitch.”

Tickets for the show in Rio de Janeiro were sold as general admission, so there were no seats assigned to individual concertgoers, which likely led to overcrowding in the pitch, he said. People who camped out for days had already subjected themselves to excess heat. Once the venue doors opened, they were strongly incentivized to rush to secure a good spot, instead of buying water.

Extreme heat led to a high volume of “complaints and incidents” on Nov. 17, Time For Fun, the company organizing the event, said in a statement. Rio’s military brigade attended to a total of 77 people that were not feeling well outside the stadium, a spokesperson said. The police have launched an investigation into whether the company was responsible for a “crime that endangered the life or the health” of attendees, local media reported on Wednesday. 

“We recognize we could have taken some alternative actions, additional to everything we already did,” Time For Fun Chief Executive Officer Serafim Abreu said on X. “We know that, with the climate change we are going through, these episodes will be more frequent — the whole sector needs to rethink its situation in face of this new reality.”

Swift said on Instagram that Benevides’ death left her with a “shattered heart.” During the show, Benevides experienced cardiorespiratory problems and a lung hemorrhage. While the latter could have been caused by extreme heat, additional tests will be needed to determine the cause of her death.

Brazil federal authorities reversed the ban on bringing water in stadiums and asked organizers to allow bottles in for Swift’s second show in Rio, which happened on Nov. 20 as temperatures in the coastal city cooled.

The issues at the first concert are part of a growing trend across mass events, Haghani said. During an Ed Sheeran concert earlier this year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, extreme heat led to 17 people being hospitalized for heat-related illnesses, including falls, seizures and cardiac arrest.

Organizers sometimes overlook risk assessments for weather events even though they are “easy to do,” he said. “We have reliable tools to predict better and actionable measures to mitigate those risks.” – Bloomberg