Three climate-minded footballers, each of whom plays for a club in a top-flight European league, engaged in a thoughtful, substantive webinar Monday about the impacts of climate change on football and vice versa. They also discussed the willingness of athletes to speak out publicly on the climate issue.
Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) produced the webinar as part of this week’s launch of its Football4Climate initiative that seeks to leverage the power of football to drive climate awareness and action amongst the industry.
In this The Age of Zoom, I’ve sat in on a bunch of Green-Sports webinars and panel discussions, many of them very interesting.
That is why it is saying something for me to write that Monday’s Football4Climate webinar which featured three footballers, each of whom plays in a top domestic league in Europe, discussing sports and climate from a variety of angles, is the best of the bunch.
I knew this would be a different type of webinar — one that would keep its focus on the intersection of sports and climate change and not stray to safer environmental topics — right from the top, thanks to the tone set by moderator David Goldblatt, a British football/soccer writer and historian who is also passionate about the need to deal with the climate crisis. He laid his cards on the table during his introduction, noting that the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework, in which all signatories commit to being carbon neutral by 2050, is a welcome start but is not nearly enough.
“Every football club and other sport organization needs to sign on to this Framework, but we need to tighten up that commitment,” Goldblatt asserted. “Thing is, the climate crisis won’t wait that long. [Sports, especially the Global North] needs to de-carbonize over the next ten years. Really, we need to be carbon zero by 2030. We can’t wait until 2050.”
The panelists — Sofie Junge Pedersen who plays for Juventus in Serie A, Italy’s top league; Morten Thorsby of Sampdoria, also of Serie A; and Arianna Criscione of Paris St. Germain (PSG) — all showed themselves to be passionate and ready to make a difference in the climate fight.
Understandably, they each brought their own unique perspectives on climate to the discussion. Junge Pedersen shared three examples of how extreme weather has impacted her and her teammates’ play.
“During a pre-season training match, temperatures reached up to 36°C (96.8°F),” recalled the Danish national team midfielder. “I became dizzy, saw black spots and had to stop playing. I was given ice cubes to cool down as I came off the pitch but I could not get cool enough to return. Another time, I played on an artificial surface with temperatures again in the 30s. Some of my teammates and I felt the bottoms of our feet were burning! After the game, several of us had developed blisters on our feet from the heat. Then, last November, we were playing A.C. Milan after two days of very heavy rain. There was so much standing water on the pitch that it got to the point where we couldn’t make simple passes to each other. This was not football; no one wants to play like this.”
Thorsby, who has made one appearance as a midfielder for the Norwegian national team, shared that his Sampdoria club trains in the mountains to avoid extreme heat. His main environmental focus is on how air pollution — largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, also the main driver of climate change — affects the game.
“Pollution in Milan is awful; when we play there, you can feel it, you can see it,” offered Thorsby. “And air pollution affects the game — there are statistics that show that passing less accurate during games played in polluted air. We should have air quality restrictions — games should not be played when the quality gets really bad. Luckily Sampdoria [about 110 km (74 miles) northeast of Milan] doesn’t have to play our home matches in those conditions.”
Criscione reported that climate change has had on effect on PSG.
“We altered our practice schedule due to the heat,” said the former UCLA and Boston College goalkeeper. “Unfortunately most of the players and the training staff have not yet made the link between the extreme heat and climate change.”
Goldblatt then dug deeper, asking the panelists what sports could and should do regarding the climate crisis.
Junge Pedersen, who shared that she had gone to a 90 percent vegan diet, citing the massive negative impact of the production of meat on the climate, believes that athletes should bring climate messaging to the young people who look up to them.
“I have first-hand experience, as an ambassador for Common Goals, with the impact an athlete can have on youth in social projects,” Junge Pedersen said. “We should use this an take our responsibility as players to address climate action in grassroots football and educate youth players on this.”
To Thorsby, the changes needed to take on the climate crisis are much bigger than football.
“We have to turn this hopelessness into hope,” he asserted. “Political changes don’t happen without everyone in their industries pushing to achieve something together.”
Criscione zeroed in on reducing plastic usage as an on-ramp for players and fans to taking environmental action, with the implication being that climate action would be the next step.
SandSI CEO Geert Hendriks then relayed to the panelists a question from an attendee about the elephant in the climate change room: whether the political nature of the issue made them shy away from talking about it.
Junge Pedersen had a simple answer: “No.”
Thorsby took issue with the question itself: “I don’t believe football players talking about climate action is politics. This is science. This is transforming the facts we have, not making a political statement.”
Criscione, who just completed a COVID-shortened first season for PSG, offered a more nuanced approach.
“We should not blame people for not speaking up about climate action, but it is important to be open and to get people talking about it,” she explained. “If we get people to talking about it, this is where we will see change.”
Football4Climate is taking steps to only get fans to talk about climate but to also act on it through its Fan Club.
The club is inviting football supporters around the world to spur meaningful climate action by urging their favorite clubs to 1) report on their carbon footprints, and 2) sign on to the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework.
Click here to find out more about Football4Climate, including how to sign up for the Fan Club.