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Dr. Allen Hershkowitz

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At last month’s Aspen Ideas: Climate conference in Miami, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver publicly stated that his league has a responsibility to lead on climate. “We have enormous reach, well into the billions of people who follow our league in one way or another,” Silver said. “So, we have this convening power…that’s a signal that we’re sending to our fans.”

He put a big green target on the NBA’s back. How does the league make good on the marker Silver laid down?

To begin to get some answers to this question, and with the NBA Finals in full swing, GSB spoke with Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, the newly minted NBA Green Sustainability Advisor — he also holds that same title with the New York Yankees and Major League Soccer.


 

GreenSportsBlog: I was of course very interested to see the comments Adam Silver made at the Aspen Institute climate summit in Miami three weeks ago. I imagine these weren’t some kind of off the cuff remarks. That’s not Adam Silver. So, what were your thoughts about his statement? And, what went into it?

Allen Hershkowitz: Lew, let me remind your readers about a few important things:

  1. No major league sports commissioner has ever sat down for a full length, on the record public interview focused on climate change until that day in Miami when Adam did it. The message that sends to the market and our culture more broadly cannot be overstated. Recall how influential it was when the NBA became the first sports organization to cancel its season when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded. That changed everyone’s understanding of the importance of that issue and, by the way, doing so definitely saved lives. 
  2. Adam’s remarks received global attention, which demonstrates the tremendous market and cultural influence of the NBA and its potential to have a transformative impact. 
  3. Adam’s commitments were substantial, specific and realistic. He is very well informed about the issue, he crafted his language very carefully to be informative and authentic, and did not over promise, all of which is very important.
  4. An organization is the shadow of its leadership and Adam Silver’s predecessor, the late David Stern, who was a passionate environmentalist, set the tone for this when he started NBA Green more than a decade ago. Adam is no less committed to this urgent issue.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (Photo credit: NBA)

 

GSB: What do you mean when you say that Silver’s comments were ‘realistic’? 

Hershkowitz: We live in a time when even experts can disagree about the value of wearing a mask during a pandemic. When it comes to climate, many people have a superficial knowledge of how complicated it is to make progress. There is a comprehension deficit, which is why we see fantasy claims being made about events or venues being “carbon neutral” or “net positive” or aviation fuel suddenly becoming “sustainable”. 

Adam chose his words very carefully, focused on what is really happening, what we can realistically do in the near term, what we need to aspire to, and his words were thoughtful and informative, and that was by design. Adam correctly spoke about being more sustainable, about aspiring to carbon neutrality and net zero. And that when it comes to addressing climate, it’s going to take many small steps and even small steps can be challenging to achieve.

GSB: Yes — Commissioner Silver said “it’s going to take a lot of ‘small hacks’ 

Hershkowitz: He’s right! If you understand the fundamental workings of the modern world, if you recall that more than 80 percent of all energy used in the world is coming from fossil fuels and that as we speak, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising, then you have to acknowledge, as Adam correctly did, that there’s not one big answer to the challenge of climate change. 

Better policies on climate are urgently needed at the federal level and internationally. No doubt about that. 

But what Adam said is a signal to large institutions that we need to advance climate action now, and that small steps add up. In some important sense, he reminded us that everything is a micro-emission so every effort matters. It’s the most urgent issue of our time or any time.

GSB: And therein lies a paradox, at least to me. On the one hand, Silver is saying the NBA needs to take ‘small hacks’ on climate but climate is the most urgent issue of our time. How do you reconcile those two seemingly conflicting perspectives?

Hershkowitz: I don’t see them as conflicting, Lew. What Adam said was that for sports to make a difference on climate, it has to have a big vision. The NBA embraces that, which is why it was it was the first North American sports league to sign on to the UN’s Sports for Climate Action framework. 

And he also correctly said that the issue is too important for us to be misled by wishful thinking or fashionable claims about rapid decarbonization. When you think about the steel industry, the concrete industry, the plastics industry, aviation, agriculture, all of which are so dependent of fossil fuels, Adam is absolutely correct that making real progress by definition will be advanced by ‘small hacks.’

But Adam absolutely put out a big vision. He just did it in a very authentic and realistic way. He said that the NBA aspires to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions — and select Scope 3 emissions — by 50 percent by 2030 and to get to Net Zero by 2040. 

Why say aspire? Because 80 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels, emissions are still rising, major industries like cement, steel, fertilizers, aviation, and plastics still overwhelming rely on fossil fuel, so it’s hard to claim that we will surely achieve a 50 percent reduction within the next seven of so years. But we can say that we aspire to do so and will do everything we can to achieve it. We are going for it. 

GSB: What does ‘going for it’ mean?

Hershkowitz: Going for it means that we are expanding the comprehensiveness of our environmental work through all aspects of the NBA’s business, including at all 15 NBA offices around the world, at more than 400 stores, at our arenas, and hopefully in collaboration with our over 200 licensees. 

Almost every major industry touches the NBA. Executives from up and down the supply chain, responsible for a significant amount of the NBA’s Scope 3 emissions, heard Adam’s message. 

And I can tell you that even at internal meetings within the NBA, Adam regularly reiterates his commitment to this work and people are being held accountable and inspired to make progress as quickly as possible. Advancing sustainability in an organization as complex as the NBA, or other sports organizations with global operations and supply chains, is very challenging. 

Adam’s words have already had an effect. Discussion about procurement and operations are well underway, and our goal is to stimulate the NBA’s supply chain towards more environmental intelligence, make it less environmentally harmful across multiple categories, from energy and paper products to textiles and food and much more. That is how change will begin to happen.

‘Going for it’ also means that climate-related criteria will be embedded into every step of the event planning process, with meaningful personnel and financial resources devoted to it. Procurement decisions will be climate sensitive. We have begun the process of measuring all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions impacts that the league controls. Everything we do is now being vetted for scientific and technological accuracy.

It all comes from the top: Adam Silver wants the NBA to become known as a league authentically committed to carbon emissions reduction. The process will never end. 

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz (Photo credit: J. Henry Fair)

 

GSB: ‘Never ending’ implies circularity in some sense and that sets up my next question about circular economy issues. Specifically, the apparel industry is a massive greenhouse gas contributor as well as a contributor to women’s health and economic distress worldwide. Again, a conflicting perspective — the NBA and its licensees want to sell more stuff, but a lot of that stuff ends up in landfill. 

Hershkowitz: Oh, I know, Lew. Circularity, especially keeping food, apparel, and other merchandise out of landfills or incinerators, is an important issue for the NBA and its teams. We already have consultants working on this. 

GSB: What are the consultants charged with doing? And when do you expect them to report back to you?

Hershkowitz: Our initial focus is on GHG measurement of all NBA assets worldwide. If we aspire to advance the UNFCCC GHG reduction goal of 50 percent reduction by 2030, we need to establish our emission baseline as quickly as possible. It’s an enormous undertaking and complicated by the fact that fossil fuels still supply 80 percent of the energy used in the world and in the USA. 

GSB: Widening the lens beyond apparel, will the NBA issue a sustainability report a la the NHL over the next couple of years so that we can see how the league is progressing towards its environmental and climate?

Hershkowitz: Organizing and communicating our climate and environmental information is necessary for many reasons. Fans want it, investors want it, regulators want it, the UN wants it, the media ask for it. So yes, accurate and authentic public reporting is on the agenda in the near future. Right now, allocating resources to achieve accomplishments is our focus, and from that work we will have the basis for an informative public reporting protocol. Obviously, we need to make sure that whatever data we release publicly is authentic, accurate and verifiable.

GSB: I would expect nothing less! So, it sounds to me that the NBA, thanks to your leadership and Silver’s and the work of many others, is focusing its greening efforts on the supply side of the climate mitigation equation. By that I mean greening the games themselves and the vast NBA supply chains. Which is of course very important. 

So, too is the demand side. What is the NBA going to do climate messaging-wise to reach the billions of people who, per Silver, follow the NBA worldwide? In fact, the commissioner himself famously said a year or two ago that 99 percent of NBA fans never attend a game…Which means that most fans follow the league on TV, phones, tablets and by other remote means. How does the league plan to reach them?

Hershkowitz: We see using the collective platform of the NBA and its teams and players as one of the largest opportunities the league has to make a difference.

The NBA has one of the largest social media communities in the world – with more than two billion (GSB’s emphasis) followers across the league, teams, and players – and the league will use its platforms to share important messaging around sustainability. By letting fans know simple steps and changes they can make that can make a difference via social and the league’s large broadcast audiences, it can help influence behavior around the world. 

NBA fans have continuously engaged with the league’s educational campaigns and the league has used the global celebrity of its players in public service campaigns with partners like the National Environmental Education Foundation, where the NBA used animation of legacy players to share energy saving and sustainability tips and promoted greater fan engagement to motivate them to undertake climate action in their everyday lives. 

Moving forward, there is no doubt that the league will continue to engage its fans in campaigns, share important resources and information as it relates to environmental responsibility and encourages all NBA fans to do their part in their daily lives year-round. 


 

GSB’s Take: Adam Silver’s statement at the Aspen Institute Climate conference was indeed a big deal. He is the first commissioner from a major North American pro sports league to speak about so directly on climate. And Allen Hershkowitz is right: Silver’s ‘green marker’ — that the NBA aspires to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2030 and get to Net Zero by 2040 will have significant ripple effects, especially as it relates to the league’s broad supply chain.

Thing is, the supply side is only half of the climate action equation. It says here that the NBA has some real work to do on the demand side to maximize the effectiveness of its #ClimateComeback efforts.

The good news is, that work is very doable. 

To do so, it says here that the league needs to engage the 99 percent of its fans who never set foot in an NBA arena to take positive climate action(s) as well as those fans who do go to games. Enact a comprehensive, fan focused climate action campaign(s), promote it aggressively on TV, streaming, radio and more. Engage players to speak out on climate.

And then, as they say in playground ball, ‘run it back’ — do even more. 


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