Athletes Leading On Climate

Global Rugby Stars Urge Sport’s Governing Bodies to Take Climate Action


More than 200 of the world’s top professional rugby players joined forces recently to send a letter to the sport’s National Governing Bodies, asking them to “safeguard a better world” through climate action. The submission of the letter was timed to coincide with this week’s World Rugby Council Meeting, at which a climate change plan is expected to be on the docket.


A letter written by rugby stars, including legendary retired Australia national team (aka the Wallabies) captain David Pocock, was signed by a global roster of 200 players, including England’s Jonathan Joseph, Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie, Ireland’s Greg O’Shea and Australia’s Sharni Williams. The signatories appealed to their governing bodies to show climate leadership in what they identify as “the decisive minutes of the game”.

They hope that its message – that rugby is “a sport of comebacks” and that climate change is already impacting the sport – will empower World Rugby and its National Governing Bodies to adopt an ambitious climate strategy at this week’s World Rugby Council Meeting.


David Pocock (Photo credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)


Each signatory – from 18 leading rugby-playing nations, including Australia, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and Tonga – has given their support to the campaign.

In addition to Pocock, Alena Olsen of the USA and Scotland’s Jamie Farndale co-authored the letter. All three are involved with initiatives that use sport to promote climate action: Pocock with Australia’s FrontRunners, Olsen as an EcoAthletes Champion and Farndale with the brand new Athletes of the World. The latter is headed up by two EcoAthletes Champions, sailor Hannah Mills – a two-time Olympic gold medalist (Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020) for Team GB, and the founder of Big Plastic Pledge – and British rower Melissa Wilson. Athletes of The World announced itself to the world when it released a video, narrated by 50 Olympians, to world leaders urging climate action ahead of COP26.

“Athletes are often criticized when they speak up about climate change,” offered Pocock. “But what this letter shows is that there are hundreds of players from around the world who are eager to tackle climate change, to address the contribution our sport is making to the problem we all face and to bring the rugby community with us. This is especially important because the climate crisis is already impacting so many of our communities. Whether it’s rising sea levels and more extreme storms in the Pacific or the bushfires in Australia that took lives, homes, and destroyed millions of hectares. It also forced my former team, the ACT Brumbies, to relocate their pre-season as Canberra was blanketed with smoke for months. Climate breakdown is already here for rugby. We must be part of the solutions.”

Olsen emphasized that climate change is a now problem for rugby, not, as many assert, a problem for two or three generations down the road.

“It’s important for rugby as a sport because the players know how excruciating the heat is in some of our World Series tournaments,” Olsen shared. “Increasing temperatures pose greater risks to our health and, as stated in the letter, rising sea levels jeopardize the future of many pacific islands. Rugby is of course not immune to what’s going on in the outside world as we’ve seen in this past year’s pandemic. World Rugby holds a lot of responsibility as a leader in sport to take action in preserving our environment and our sport as we know it today.”


Alena Olsen (Photo credit: USA Rugby)


Farndale focuses his energy on pushing the sport’s decision makers to do more on climate, much more.

“As rugby players [my two co- authors and I] of course want to see our sport do more, and know other players feel the same”, recalled Jamie Farndale. “We thought this letter would be a powerful driver to show World Rugby our support and that we are all with them as they move to promote climate action and sustainability. We speak about the values of rugby in our letter, and I have seen these values so clearly throughout my career. There is nothing quite like sport to unite and inspire, and I would love to see rugby showcasing these values, leading the way in tackling climate change. The next couple of decades are going to be so decisive in terms of their impact on our future. We can already see some of the impacts and understand the cascading effect that non-action could have. We need to stand up and act before it is too late.”


Jamie Farndale (Photo credit: The Glasgow Herald)



The letter was deliberately general in nature. Its main purpose was to let the World Rugby Council know that it has the support of over 200 rugby players to enact what they hope will turn out to be ambitious climate policies.

The next step is the Council’s.

It is expected to agree on an environmental sustainability plan at this week’s meeting. Once it is published – sources tell GreenSportsBlog that the plan should be made public during the first quarter of 2022 – then Pocock, Olsen, Farndale, in tandem with the signatories, will likely make specific climate action asks of the Council.

Watch this space.


GSB’s Take: After the torrent of Green-Sports activity — with athletes playing a big role — at and around the COP26 global climate conference, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this would be a one-off or if athletes would continue to speak out on the need for climate action after the delegates left Glasgow.

I know it’s just one data point, one letter, but I am glad to see that the triumvirate of Pocock, Olsen and Farndale used the momentum from COP26 to go public now. Hopefully, World Rugby and the national governing bodies will put forth a climate action plan that avoids generalities while going long on measurable specifics. Those should include:

  • Climate-themed fan engagement programming
  • Strategies for generating consistent media coverage of the players’ climate initiatives and environmental good works
  • Establishment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions baselines and targets for clubs, venues, and international tournaments, including estimates of fan travel-related emissions. 



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