Edinburgh festivals become latest climate battleground

Walk-outs and authors demanding new sponsorship have made headlines out of the Scottish capital’s annual cultural celebrations, casting the climate-art funding debate in sharp relief.

Big Ben, London

Last week, more than 50 leading authors involved in the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) called on the event to reject financing and support from companies involved in fossil fuels. Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, and Gary Younge were among the signatories.

This action was triggered by the sponsorship of Baillie Gifford, an investment firm which is believed to have up to £5billion held with corporations profiting from oil and gas at a time when climate scientists and leading organisations have advised no new investment in the sector if there is a change of averting the worst impacts of climate change. High profile activist and author-editor of The Climate Book, chose to pull out of (EIBF) completely as a result of the situation. 

‘In recent years the Edinburgh International Book Festival has gone a long way in facilitating conversations about climate and environmental justice, featuring some of the most prominent authors currently writing on the issue,’ said Guy Gunaratne, author of Mister, Mister, who backs the letter. ‘For these conversations to go beyond words on the page, they must send a clear message to their sponsors. We call on them to show us that they truly understand the urgency of the situation, and its impact on people’s lives worldwide.’ 

On Saturday, Mikaela Loach, who wrote It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action To Transform Our World, staged a walkout of her own event at EIBF alongside fellow authors Jessica Gaitan Johannesson and Mohamed Tonsy. ‘While Baillie Gifford has major investments in fossil fuel companies, they should not be sponsoring, or being able to be greenwashed by a cultural festival which is about ideas and imagination,’ Loach said as she unfolded a banner with the slogan: ‘You Wouldn’t Burn Books. Don’t Burn the Planet. Drop Baillie Gifford.’

These actions bring a long-standing debate over sponsorship in arts and culture back to the foreground. In the past, support for galleries, venues and events has often been criticised because of the interests of backers. Prominent examples include the Sackler family, the subject of a new Netflix drama on US opioid deaths and the rise of OxyContin, and the Tate institutions, which take their name from and were established with the financial support of Henry Tate, whose interests in sugar can be tied to the slave trade. 

More recently, concerns over links between cultural capital and climate have become more audible. In June this year, the British Museum very publicly put an end to 27 years of sponsorship by fossil fuel giant BP after ongoing pressure from campaigners. This follows similar actions by Tate, Edinburgh International Festival, Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries Scotland, and The Edinburgh Science Festival. The organisation Art Not Oil has played a leading role in catalysing change. 

Nevertheless, the complexities of economics means gauging what constitutes a suitable sponsor in 2023 in environmental-social-governance terms isn’t always easy. And avoid this becomes even more difficult when you consider the increasing problematic funding shortfall within the arts as a whole. Simply put, money is needed and costs are rising rapidly post-lockdown, but this surely means the stage is set for climate-friendly, resource rich giants to step in and start plugging the gaps.

More on climate and event sponsorship:

Winter sports in bed with the companies who are putting it at risk, says report

Image:  Gabriele Stravinskaite



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