When Dr. Allen Hershkowitz talks, people across the sports world, green and otherwise, listen. Having created the greening programs at MLB, NBA, NHL, the USTA, and co-founded and served as President of the Green Sports Alliance, it is no exaggeration to say that Hershkowitz is the most consequential environmentalist in the history of North American sports. Hershkowitz is now globalizing his scope of influence as he helps develop Sustainability and Sports International (SandSI). So his recent column that ran Monday, March 20th in Sports Business Journal (SBJ), urging stronger sustainability leadership from the North American professional sports world, and urging the leadership of pro-sports leagues to begin accounting for their carbon footprint, well, to quote Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, “attention must be paid.” GreenSportsBlog spoke with Hershkowitz about the story, its timing and where we go from here.
GreenSportsBlog: Allen, congratulations on your important column for Sports Business Journal (to read it, click HERE). Since you have helped create the Green-Sports movement from the beginning, both at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and at the Green Sports Alliance, and given your leadership role in helping to create the greening programs at MLB, NHL, NASCAR, NBA and the USTA, going public to urge the major sports leagues in North America to measure their carbon footprints in your SBJ column is big. Of course, the NHL has measured its carbon footprint since 2014, so I take it your statement is meant for everyone else. What made you go public now?
Allen Hershkowitz: Well, Lew, I don’t want to be melodramatic, but as a scientist who has devoted his career to studying resource consumption, pollution and sustainability for more than 35 years, I have no choice but to conclude that our planet is facing greater environmental threats than at any time in modern history…
Allen Hershkowitz (Photo credit: J. Henry Fair)
GSB: …But certainly the climate crisis and other environmental calamities aren’t new. So why now? Is this a reaction to the Trump Administration’s rabidly anti-environment, anti-climate initiatives and proposals?
AH: No, not really. I would’ve written this now even had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. The main reason for the timing is that the most recent available information, from global surface temperature—the highest in recorded history—to ocean temperature to ocean acidification to polar ice loss to species loss, clearly shows that the climate crisis and its effects are worsening at an accelerating pace. Projections are such that, if present trends continue, more than one billion people will become climate refugees by 2050…
GSB: …And there are perhaps millions of climate refugees right now. There is peer-reviewed data that ascribes some portion of the severe Syrian drought to climate change. That drought forced many rural Syrians, who could no longer work in agriculture, into the cities, and thus helped ignite the civil war and subsequent refugee tragedy.
AH: Weather extremes are certainly threatening water availability, and food production and that leads to mass dislocations and conflict, as in Syria. And this crisis goes far beyond humans. Species continue to disappear at unprecedented rates, including many that are sports team mascots. Our grandchildren may never get a chance to see tigers or polar bears, except in photographs and documentaries. These problems are happening, and, as I said before, now we know they’re happening at a faster, downright scarier pace than we thought. The climate change-caused death of the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia was expected to happen 30 years from now. It’s happening now. This is what prompted my column now, regardless of who is in the White House.
“Drought, Water, War and Climate Change,” a 5 minute 42 second video from the Yale Climate Connections group, connects the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change.
GSB: I get that. But I gotta believe that the utter disregard President Trump, EPA Administrator Pruitt and their team are showing to climate change and the environment more broadly added a bit of urgency. Heck, the second paragraph of your piece goes right after the President’s plans for the EPA:
“If President Trump’s proposed budget is enacted, EPA funding will be reduced by 20% (amended to 31%), to about $6 billion, distinguishing the United States in 2017 as the only industrialized nation on Earth with a national policy committed to reducing the financial and scientific resources needed to address worsening climate change.”
AH: Look, I know that what is happening and what is likely to happen in Washington DC in the months to come threatens to undermine so much of the progress we have made collectively on climate and the broader sustainability agenda over the last few decades. It is profoundly disheartening. And I don’t say this as a partisan. I say this as a scientist and as someone who is grounded in reality. And the reality is this: Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the EPA, has publicly rejected the broad scientific consensus on the human causality of climate change. When he was Attorney General in Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the very agency he is now charged with running on more than a dozen occasions. His appointment could well undermine the agency’s core air and water protection programs, which have enjoyed bipartisan support over the years.
GSB: So how have the commissioners and other high level executives at the leagues—folks with whom you’ve worked for years, whose trust you’ve earned, reacted to your article and to your concerns about the direction of the Administration?
AH: I have always spoken respectfully and factually to my good friends at the leagues. As I didn’t want there to be any surprises, I showed my league contacts an early draft of the SBJ piece.
GSB: What did they think?
AH: Overall, they were positive, and although there were some suggestions to “tone it down,” the basic thrust of the final product was the same as the first draft. Let me put it to you this way: None of my friends at the leagues told me not to publish this.
GSB: That’s good to hear. And what about your thoughts on the Administration? I know you’ve strived hard to stay out of partisan politics and I am sure the leagues appreciate that. But how do you stay neutral on the politics with them?
AH: The leaders of these leagues understand there is just no denying that the current White House and EPA statements on climate change and related subjects have caused consternation in many quarters of the nation, in the scientific community and in capitals around the world. They also understand that this President has started the process of rolling back important fuel efficiency standards and repealing or significantly weakening the Endangered Species Act, which has over the years been a force for rescuing dozens of critters from extinction, including many of the animals that serve as sports team mascots. I am certain the sustainability leaders at all the leagues understand he is misleading the American public on this issue, divisibly and dangerously so.
GSB: That’s good to hear. So how are the leagues reacting to your appeal for carbon footprint accounting?
AH: It’s a process. One reason the leagues, aside from the NHL and Gary Bettman, haven’t been as aggressive on carbon accounting as I would’ve hoped is that the environmental priorities in the US, from a governmental perspective, are relatively weak as compared to, say, Europe. And this was the case before Trump, and even despite the positive strides made by his predecessor.
GSB: That’s interesting…I know that there is a much broader acceptance of climate change in Europe than there is here, and that European governments, in most cases, have stronger, clearer rules on environmental issues than does the US. But do those rules affect sports in Europe?
AH: Absolutely. In many European countries, government agencies regulate sports more aggressively than in the US or Canada. Carbon accounting is an accepted practice there. Thus, the European sports world is already working in an environment, pun intended, where the rules, the norms are clearly more eco-friendly than here in the US. The French Ministry of Sport has been very keen on pushing its Federations (i.e. basketball, swimming, tennis, etc.) to measure their carbon footprint. In fact, 22 sports federations France came together to work towards science-based carbon reduction targets. And some of the major French sports events, starting back in 2007 with the Rugby World Cup and, more recently, the French Open at Roland-Garros and the UEFA EURO 2016, measure their carbon footprint and work towards reductions. France has implemented a platform, Auto Diagnostic Environnemental pour les Responsables d’Evénements,” or ADERE, that allows each organizer to measure roughly their environmental impact and self-discipline themselves to improve from year to year.
GSB: We need to be modeling what the French are doing…
AH: Exactly. And that’s what I am telling the leagues. And, as has been the case for the last decade or more, they listen. Step 1 for the leagues was to acknowledge the reality of human-caused climate change. The NHL, MLB, the NBA all submitted comments to Congress on this issue a number of years ago.
Gary Bettman (l), commissioner of the NHL, the first league to issue a sustainability report. Commissioner Bettman and other sports commissioners have publicly acknowledged climate change. (Photo credit: TMZ)
GSB: What about Roger Goodell and the NFL? They’ve been very quiet on this issue.
AH: They have, but Goodell did state publicly at a Beyond Sport United conference at Yankee Stadium a couple years ago that climate change is real. And Brian France at NASCAR has also publicly acknowledged the importance of this issue. Step 2 was to get sports to measure its energy use. This happened gradually across most North American sports leagues starting in around 2010, taking about 5-6 years. Now is the time for Step 3: to speak about climate change and to measure carbon…
GSB: Because what gets measured gets managed. And what gets managed matters.
AH: Yes! And the leagues are actually in a strong position to speak up and take action. The Scott Pruitts of the world, the James Inhofes of the world…
GSB: …Inhofe being the climate change denying senator from Oklahoma who famously brought a snowball into the senate chamber to demonstrate that climate change isn’t happening. Nice.
US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) gets ready to throw a snowball fastball in the senate chamber in February, 2015. He brought a snowball into the senate to somehow cast doubt on the reality of climate change. No words. (Photo credit: Huffington Post)
AH: Those people can attack science but they can’t attack Major League Baseball, they can’t attack the NHL, they can’t attack NASCAR, whose Chairman of the Board Brian France, has publicly acknowledged the importance of addressing climate change. So now is the time, as I say in the article, for the leagues to calculate carbon emissions, develop a multiyear action plan to reduce carbon emissions, set meaningful, “science-based carbon reduction targets” (at least a 20 percent reduction in the next five to eight years) and aim for net zero carbon emissions from league and team operations, travel, and procurement within the next 20 years, and finally, communicate and inspire fans to do the same.
GSB: Amen! This is exactly what I’ve been urging all along, why I write GreenSportsBlog: To get the powers that be in sports to use their incredible megaphone to drive action on climate among all stakeholders. And that sports, with its ethos of overcoming obstacles, is uniquely well-positioned to do this.
AH: I agree, Lew. And, taking a look back over the last decade or so, the American professional sports world has come a long way. The leagues and many teams have cut energy usage substantially, made their supply chains more sustainable by purchasing recycled products, and they have taken important steps to educate millions of fans. I can’t tell you how proud I am of what we have undertaken together and what the leagues have accomplished in recent years to begin shifting the entire sports culture in a more sustainable, sensible direction. And showing courage by speaking out on what might be a controversial topic today is something sports has done for the last 75+ years. From Jackie Robinson and baseball’s color barrier, to Billie Jean King and equal rights and homophobia, sports has often led culture and politics in the US. It can do so on climate by taking the next step: Measuring carbon and speaking out for positive climate action.
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