Amy Steel is the first netball player GreenSportsBlog has interviewed — for those who are unfamiliar, it is somewhat similar to basketball except there is no backboard, seven players instead of five and the ball has to be passed within three seconds. She played professionally in her native Australia, a netball hotbed, as well in the top professional league there.
But it is Steel’s passion for the climate change fight, both as an athlete ambassador for Australia’s Sport Environment Alliance and in her post-netball career as Manager, Climate Risk and Decarbonization for Deloitte Australia that drew our interest.
GreenSportsBlog: Your story has so many interesting threads to it, Amy. So, let’s start at the beginning. When did you get interested in netball and also the environment?
Amy Steel: Growing up in Melbourne, I just loved the outdoors and the natural environment. One of my most memorable moments from primary school was learning about climate change. I can remember the actual video that explained climate change and what my future was going to look like. It’s crazy that I was ten years old and I still remember that video as something that inspired me.
GSB: Why do you think it stuck with you?
Amy: It just blew my mind that people weren’t doing anything about it. I asked my parents, ‘Why are we just sitting around; isn’t it a big deal?’ So this was always on my mind, even if I wasn’t super-activist about it in my younger days.
Sport was also a massive part of my life. I was a professional netballer from the age of about 15.
GSB: Wait a second. You can be a professional netball player in Australia at 15?
Amy: Well, back in those days, being a professional netballer there, you’d make about $400 per year- this was for the highest level league in Australia. So, yeah, I played while in high school, with games on weekends.
Eventually I got to the highest level, playing for the Australian National Team. It was a huge honor and privilege. Some notable wins were winning the World Youth Championships in 2009 and being the first team to go undefeated in the ANZ Championship in 2011.
Amy Steel and her Australian National Netball teammates finish off their undefeated 2011 ANZ championship run.
GSB: Congratulations! So, how did you make the transition to a career in sustainability and climate at Deloitte, one of the leading financial consulting firms in the world?
Amy: Well, it goes back about four years ago now when I was 26. I was playing in a pre-season tournament. It was a 39°C (102°F) day in Shepparton, a country town in Victoria.
GSB: That’s bloody hot; kind of like what you would see at an Australian Open tennis match where play would be stopped, people would pass out.
Amy: Yeah, you don’t want to be outside on this kind of day. But we spent some time outside before the game signing autographs in the central part of town. And even though it was pre-season, it was against our rival club, so it was a big game. Then we get to the stadium and it was so bloody hot, even during the warmups, I had to get ice cubes to rub on my face.
Our coach responded, saying she’d play us only for a half, rotating in our substitutes. I actually had a good game; so, I did play more than half of it. By the end, I didn’t feel that great, but we had to hang around and sign some more autographs. Then we did our post game stretching. So, it was about a half hour before we got to our ice baths.
In the ice bath, I remember I just wasn’t feeling OK and my body temperature started to go a bit weird. Then finally we left the locker room, heading to the car to go home and I lost my legs and collapsed. Turns out I’d had a heat stroke.
GSB: Oh wow. What was the result?
Amy: It took me several years to find out all of the ramifications from the heat stroke. At the time, the doctors thought I’d gotten sick and would get better. I never got the sense this would be my last game of netball, last sport activity. But it became clear that I had some damage to my internal organs that is irreversible.
I think the biggest amount of damage was done to my brain stem. Don’t know if I’ll ever be able to run again because of that. Basically, when I get slightly overheated now, even just by running, my brain stem reacts as though I have to get cooler quickly. So, my body starts to shut down.
GSB: What kind of exercise can you do?
Amy: I can go for walks, do yoga, and some slow Tai-Chi kind of things. I’m grateful for this but for someone who was a professional athlete who trained twice a day, it has been a big life change. After the heat stroke, it took me eight, nine months before I could get out of bed and go to my office without being absolutely exhausted.
Amy Steel is passionate about protecting flora and fauna native to Australia. It’s not hard to imagine why, with her backyard full of “joeys” or baby kangaroos (Photo credit: Amy Steel)
GSB: Where did you work?
Amy: I was working with Deloitte at the time.
GSB: Working for one of the world’s top financial consulting firms must have been exhausting in its own way. What did you study in school?
Amy: I veered towards commerce¹, concentrating in accounting and finance because I could take classes online while I was traveling around playing netball. When I finished, I thought to myself, ‘holy moly, I have to be an accountant now.’ It wasn’t what I’d planned on doing, but it allowed me to get a part time job while I was still playing. Got the Australian equivalent of a CPA.
So, by the time the eight-nine months passed, and I could get myself to the office, I asked myself ‘Is it worth spending so much energy to do something I don’t really care about?”
GSB: I have a feeling I know your answer…
Amy: Well, I woke up one weekend morning with such a sense of purpose, knowing that I had to work in the sustainability and climate change space. Next time I went in to work, I started to ask, ‘What is Deloitte doing in this space?’ Turns out we had a sustainability team that focused on emissions reporting and environmental reporting — Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and especially the TCFD or Task Force on Financial Disclosures that Michael Bloomberg and others supported.
GSB: That’s important work. How did you feel about it?
Amy: Yeah as I was getting into this work, I felt a bit torn. Was corporate sustainability reporting true to my sense of purpose? I came to the conclusion that yes — our clients are the companies that have the money, they have the power so if we could make a difference here…For example, some of Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters represent one percent of total emissions…
GSB: A big amount…
Amy: Yeah, if we could make a big difference in that one percent, that’s more emissions than a lot of countries have.
So, in 2017-18, we started to map out how to approach the TCFD in Australia, along the way refining this and developing more data visualization tools that can help communicate climate change in a way that makes sense for business. Then in 2019 and into early this year, the bushfires galvanized more attention and interest among the Australian people and corporates on climate change.
GSB: Vice President Gore runs the Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit that has taught thousands of citizens the world over, me included, to give the slide presentations that were at the heart of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “An Inconvenient Sequel” to all manner of community groups.
Amy: I’ve given about ten presentations. And I’m doing my Masters’ degree in climate policy at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. So, at Deloitte I get to nerd out, working on climate science all day, interacting with folks at the universities and meteorology bureaus in Melbourne and Perth where I live now.
Funny thing is, I thought the climate scientists wouldn’t be interested in talking to me, as a consultant and a former athlete. But the opposite was true. They loved that I was interested! They had so much important knowledge to get out, and relatively so few people prepared to listen and act.
GSB: We have the same problem in the U.S. unfortunately. What are you working on now?
Amy: I’m manager of Deloitte’s climate change division, which is kind of my dream job. We help companies to understand their climate risk, how exposed they might be to physical hazards in the future, but also how they can take advantage of a low-carbon transition. To do this we need to measure our clients’ carbon footprint and advise them on how they can start on a reduction regimen that get them to compliance with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement 1.5° to 2°C target.
From an adaptation lens, we model scenarios about what the climate might look like in 2050, 2070 or even 2100 and what physical challenges companies will need to adapt to. Right now, we’re working on an adaptation road map for a company in the wine industry, which is super interesting.
GSB: I can imagine. So, what is the climate for climate change in Australia these days?
Amy: Sadly, it’s still a partisan issue here, much like in the U.S. So corporate and political leaders are careful not to step too far out on a limb…
GSB: That ‘go slow’ approach is in opposition to, well, physics, which says we have to decarbonize at a Usain Bolt-like pace if we’re going to get a handle on climate.
Amy: Absolutely. Add to that the ‘risk-perception’ problem where, especially in the developed world, we are aware climate change is happening, but we don’t believe it will affect us in our safe homes. This is one reason things are moving so slowly.
GSB: So, how do you want to use your position as a retired athlete and a leader in sustainable business to accelerate the pace of climate action? And how might the coronavirus crisis impact your work at the intersection of climate & sports?
Amy: Well, my reason for getting involved with Sport Environment Alliance goes back to the awful experience I’ve had since the heat stroke. It’s personal to me — I want to do what I can to help people to protect them from exposure to the same kind of climate risk I dealt with and to fight to limit the damage to the climate going forward.
And I’ve done a heap of learning about climate change at Deloitte, in school and through SEA. I’d love to use my platform² to make that useful for other athletes as well.
I know during this time, in the midst of COVID-19, many sports organizations around the world are suffering, as are many people. And this should not be made light of, it is a dire situation.
But we can’t lose our focus on the end goal, because the climate crisis still needs to be tackled. Those of us who are fortunate enough to not be on the front-line of the virus, and have acquired some additional time, need to lift our efforts. The recovery from COVID will go either of two ways in my view:
- We will see that our previous way of living was not sustainable, and look to integrate newer, more sustainable ways of living into the way we commute, play sport, and generally go about our days- OR,
- We revert back to the old ways of doing things and make no conscious effort to change.
This choice that each of us will get the chance to make may go a long way to either reducing or increasing the climate challenge.
GSB: Sports and business will need to play important, forward leaning roles on COVID and climate if we going to go down the sustainable recovery road you laid out. I’m glad you are on the case in both arenas.
¹ A commerce degree in the Australian academic system is equivalent to a business or economics degree in the U.S.
² Steel will use her platform to spark a climate comeback as a Supporter of EcoAthletes, the new nonprofit recently launched by yours truly and a team of Green-Sports All-Stars. It will educate athletes to speak out on climate change.
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