Greta Thunberg started her weekly school strike in front of the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm to urge strong, immediate action on climate change in August, 2018 when she was 15. In a little less than three years, Thunberg, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, built a global movement of youthful climate protesters under the Fridays For Future banner, chastised world leaders for talking the climate talk but not taking meaningful action at a UN General Assembly speech and was named TIME’s Person of the Year for 2019.
After watching the first episode of the must-see, 3-part, Thunberg-themed PBS documentary series, A Year To Change The World, GSB reached out to her team to see if we could interview her about how the sports world is doing on the climate fight and how it can go — as the Olympic Motto says — Higher, Stronger, Faster.
We didn’t get a response but no offense was taken. Hey, Greta’s got a lot on her plate these days.
So, we’re doing the next best thing: As was the case with stars like Drew Brees and Tiger Woods who wouldn’t talk to us (yet!), we imagine what a conversation with Greta would be like with our latest GSB (Mock) Interview.
GreenSportsBlog: Thank you so much for talking with us, Greta! We know time is of the essence, so let’s get right to it. First, about you. What sports do you play if any? Are you a sports fan? And if so, what sports do you follow?
Greta Thunberg: It is my pleasure. This is a different type of interview for me as I am rarely asked for my thoughts about sport.
I am not much of an athlete. I do enjoy going for walks and riding my bike but never really played organized sport. Now, with my schedule being so busy, I don’t get enough exercise — my parents are always urging me to do more!
I do enjoy watching some sports, especially football, especially the Swedish Women’s National Team. I watched their matches during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. They have a very good team but will be in the same group with the USA in the Olympics so that will be a big challenge.
GSB: Interesting that you mention the Olympics. When Sweden played in the 2019 World Cup, they only had to travel to France. For the Olympics, they will have to go all the way to Tokyo.
Putting on a mega-sports event like an Olympics or a World Cup generates significant carbon emissions. Given the urgency of the climate crisis — as you well know, the 2018 UN IPCC report said that humanity must decarbonize by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid its most calamitous impacts — do you think such events should be taking place?
Greta: That is a very difficult question to answer.
On the one hand, I believe that the sportsmen and women who have devoted their whole lives to make it to the Olympic stage deserve the opportunity to perform on it and to inspire billions of fans. The same thing goes for football players who make it to a World Cup. And for millions of fans, Olympics and World Cups are ways to connect and be inspired and energized. And we need this.
On the other hand, the climate crisis is immediate and existential. The scale of transition needed is, dare I say it, Olympian. Our leaders — political, business, and cultural — are not moving us at all towards the transition to the clean economy we need.
Yes, global emissions were down 6.4 percent in 2020 due to the COVID slowdown but they will snap back up as economic activity, especially travel, returns. It’s already happening.
So, to your question, I feel like my job is to build a massive grassroots movement to demand climate action and solutions, not recommend specific policy positions. But, you are interviewing me and have asked my opinion so I will give one even though I am not an expert on this type of policy.
I feel that, from the climate point of view, this year’s Olympics should take place, especially since the Japanese will not allow foreign fans into the country, so emissions will be much lower than typically is the case. And I think that the 2022 Beijing Winter Games should happen, too, only because the athletes, as with the Summer Games athletes, have trained so hard. It’s really not their fault and it is too late to cancel in my opinion.
GSB: What about the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand? The former was moved from June-July to November-December to account for the extreme heat in that country, which is more extreme due to climate change.
Greta: I don’t think Qatar was a wise choice for the 2022 Men’s World Cup for climate reasons, not to mention the human rights violations suffered by the workers imported to build the stadiums from Bangladesh and other places…
GSB: …According to news reports, over 6,500 workers have perished yet without a hint of outrage..
Greta: This is unacceptable, criminal really. How is this OK with the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the world?
Still, were I an elected official with a vote on whether to host global mega-events, I would say they should go on through 2023 in fairness to the athletes…
GSB: If that would be the case, certainly the powers-that-be like the IOC and FIFA should message to fans around the world about their commitments on taking climate action so that future competitions can take place.
Greta: But that’s just talk! And that’s the problem. Commitments are easy!
Will the IOC, FIFA and other organizations take the actions necessary that would drastically lower the carbon footprints of these events?
So, I think that, unless real progress is made by these organizations in the next two to three years, Olympics and World Cups in 2024 and beyond should be scaled back for two reasons: One, to reduce emissions. And two — number one, really — is that this will show billions of people that we are in an existential crisis. Sport, as important as it is, should only happen once we’ve made real progress on climate. But we haven’t.
GSB: …Well, to be fair, the IOC says that the organization itself, its offices and operations, will be climate positive — which means taking out more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits — by 2024.
And perhaps to your point, all Organizing Committees from the 2030 Winter Olympics and beyond will also be contractually obligated to deliver climate positive games. They say will do this by a combination of emissions reductions, by offsetting more than 100 percent of their remaining emissions and by using their influence to encourage others within the sports world to take action against climate change.
Assuming that they reach these goals, isn’t that enough?
Greta: Well, wouldn’t that depend on the percentage of emissions that are actually reduced versus offset? My guess is that most of this action is in offsets and while that is better than nothing…
GSB: …Much of the IOC’s offsetting comes through planting trees in the Great Green Wall in the African Sahel.
Greta: And that is a good thing, of course. But it takes decades for trees to reach their full offsetting potential. In any case, as you know, offsetting will not solve the climate crisis.
Real emissions reductions will.
GSB: What kind of emissions reductions would the Olympics and World Cups be able to enact in order to be on pace for the “less than 1.5° C increase vs. pre-industrial levels” track that the U.N. says we need to achieve?
Greta: The truth is, I don’t know. I haven’t studied emissions data for major international sporting events.
But I do know that having thousands of athletes and millions of fans fly all over the world to host countries and cities and then fly or drive within once there is not the way to get us there. By 2024, the world should be mostly beyond COVID and so fans will likely be able to travel fairly easily and so emissions for these events would be expected to skyrocket.
I also know that building eight air conditioned stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar — they are outdoors! — shows that the organizers are giving a middle finger to the climate crisis.
GSB: I agree for the most part. I mean, FIFA moved the World Cup to November-December. The average high temperature during the day is between 25-30°C (76 and 86°F). That seems bearable.
To give the other side of the story, the organizers say the A/C will be extremely energy efficient and that this will make the stadiums playable in hotter months, and that this will be the future of outdoor stadium events in hot climates. But overall, the messaging is just wrong.
At least the vast majority of the events at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Canada, Mexico and the USA, as well as the 2028 LA Olympics will take place in venues that already existed. That’s a step in the right direction.
But, again I ask if the Olympics and FIFA were really serious about taking on the climate crisis, what kind of reductions should they make?
Greta: As we said, air conditioning outdoor stadiums is a big move in the wrong direction. We need big steps in the right direction!
Fan and team travel is a big problem from a carbon footprint perspective. FIFA, the IOC and the media who show those games are wealthy! Use some of that wealth to invest in companies pioneering low-carbon transportation and heating and cooling technologies and then let us know you are doing it. Why not start this summer? Generation Z, my generation, and the ones after us, will applaud you and use those technologies that lead the low-carbon transportation revolution!
GSB: And, not for nothing, the Olympics and FIFA…and every other sports organization for that matter…are most concerned about remaining relevant to younger generations. I think leading on climate would be an important step towards relevance. Now, you mentioned COVID…
Greta: Yes, let’s look at COVID.
At its best, the response to the pandemic shows that, by listening to the scientists and following the science, we can make meaningful changes in a short amount of time.
The rapid development of the vaccines is incredible and getting them into arms of millions gives us hope. Of course, those vaccines are not getting to the people who need it most — in India, Brazil and other developing countries as well as women more broadly — but this is evidence that we can do big things!
And, while they have been incredibly painful in so many ways, economic shutdowns and lockdowns helped save lives and slow COVID’s spread.
Sport had to shut down at first. The Olympics were postponed for a year. This was terrible for players and people who work in sport. My friends who are fans were very upset. Then games came back, but without fans. My friends said this was much better than nothing. Now fans are being let in, bit by bit. How will this go? No one knows. Hopefully, sport will respond by continuing to follow the science.
Now, imagine if the world listens to the scientists and follows the science on climate, including the people who run Olympics and FIFA. If they see that the world is not moving fast and effectively enough to cut emissions and extreme weather becomes even more devastating, mega-events may have to be canceled.
GSB: …The Olympics were canceled during World War I and both the World Cup and the Olympics did not happen during World War II.
Greta: …Or, like sport during COVID, they would have to be scaled back.
GSB: What would that look like?
Greta: Well, I don’t know this field very well, but instead of a World Cup the way we know it, what if each continent held their own championship like they always do and then each winner goes to one location to determine the world champion.
GSB: …Like the Euros, the African Cup of Nations, etc…
Greta: …Only with fans from host countries attending. The Olympics would have to do something similar, with regional events leading to a smaller championship.
This would be sad for the sportsmen and women and for the fans. But not nearly as sad as the impacts of an unchecked climate crisis.
We have to solve the climate crisis. It is our COVID. It is our World War II. I don’t say this to be glib or alarmist.
I don’t want people to listen to me. I want them to listen to the scientists and follow the science.
It is the fact and we must accept it fully to be able to move on to solutions.
Sport must play its part.
There is no other option.
Photo at top: Greta Thunberg, cheering for the Swedish Women’s National Team during the 2019 Women’s World Cup (Photo credit: Instagram)