What could sports look like in a world that doesn’t seriously address climate change?
The bushfire-disrupted qualifying tournament that preceded the recent Australian Open in Melbourne offers a high profile, impossible-to-ignore data point.
On the flip side, how can sports take serious climate action?
GSB offers one potential game-changing solution.
Bushfires, a product of both record-setting drought and triple-digit temperatures, have torn through Australia for months with devastating results for humans, other animal life and the environment.
Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, explained in a recent interview with videographer Peter Sinclair, that climate change directly intensifies wildfires by drying out soil and vegetation, creating more fuel to burn farther and faster. Drought-prone regions like Australia and California are particularly at risk.
PLAYERS SUFFERED AS SMOKE FROM BUSHFIRES INVADED AUSTRALIAN OPEN QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT
Players and fans at the Australian Open’s qualifying tournament, which was played in Melbourne the week of January 13, felt the brunt of smoke emanating from nearby bushfires.
Here’s how Giri Nathan, writing in the January 21 edition of The Outline put it: The infernos “cast off plumes of smoke so large that they’re visible from space; they form lightning-prone weather systems unto themselves. The smoke migrates with the wind, and, according to NASA, is expected to make one full circuit around the globe. As it is blown across Australia, it sporadically smothers cities like Melbourne, host of the [Australian] Open.”
On January 13, the first day of the qualifying tournament, the impacts of the smoke were severe:
- Air quality in Melbourne was described by a Victoria state health official as being “worst in the world.”
- The city’s Air Quality Index qualified as hazardous for all people. Those under 14 and over 65 were advised to stay indoors.
- Dozens of players seeking to qualify for the tournament’s main men’s and women’s draws were told it was safe to compete outdoors by tournament organizers. Once again, this was despite Melbourne having the worst air quality in the world. Or, as Nathan put it, “the eyeball too is an authority, though, and here’s a doomy vision of Melbourne, just hours before the first matches of the qualifying rounds”:
The qualifying tournament, in which lower-ranked players vied to earn the last 16 slots in the men’s and women’s singles events, was played on outdoor courts that offer little relief from the Australian summer sun. Moving the qualifiers indoors was reportedly considered, but smoke had seeped into those courts, too.
Players tried to fight through the brutal conditions but many were unable to do so.
The 180th ranked woman in the world, Slovenia’s Davila Jakupovic, was up a set on her opponent in the first round of qualifying, when she was done in by a coughing fit. Moments later, she was kneeling on the court. Shortly after that, she forfeited the match. “It was very hard for me to breathe for the whole match. After 20 minutes I already had difficulties,” Jakupovic told CNN . “I wasn’t able to make more than three shots running left and right because I was already getting an asthma attack. I don’t have asthma normally.”
She placed blame squarely on the shoulders of Tennis Australia, organizers of the Australian Open: “We are all pissed and a bit disappointed because we thought they would take better care of us.”
Eugenie Bouchard of Canada, a finalist at Wimbledon in 2014, called for medical timeouts several times during her first-round qualifying match with China’s Xiaodi You as she struggled with breathing. You, who suffered from cramps, also called on a trainer for assistance.
Here is Nathan’s take on the Bouchard-You match: “[The conditions] made for a match barely recognizable as professional tennis. One baffling, representative moment: a foot fault called on an underarm second serve, after a failed underarm first serve, because an overhead serve was physically out of the question.”
On the men’s side of the qualifiers, Britain’s Liam Broady, the 234th ranked player in the world, was furious, writing on Twitter, “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood. Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high-intensity physical competition?”
Contributing to the players’ distress were the fine particles in the air smaller than 2.5 micrometers — small enough to travel into one’s lungs. On January 14, the second day of the “qualies”, Melbourne’s 24-hour average concentration of these particles was reported to be 233.6 micrograms per cubic meter, a level that is considered unhealthy for everyone, world class tennis players included.
The short-term effects of these atmospheric particles — from irritation to coughing to shortness of breath and more — are real. Long-term exposure can be catastrophic, resulting in serious heart and lung conditions.
Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, the world’s 5th ranked player, spoke for all players when she wondered on Twitter, “Why do we need to wait for something bad to happen to do an action?”
SPORTS EXECUTIVES, UNSURE OF HOW TO DEAL WITH CLIMATE CHANGE, KNOW THEY HAVE TO DO SOMETHING
Sports event organizers have started to act when it comes to climate-related player safety.
Players at the Australian and U.S. Opens have been allowed, over the last several years, to take breaks when heat and humidity reach levels deemed to be unhealthy. Top domestic soccer leagues, like the English Premier League, have similar policies. And, as reported in GreenSportsBlog last October, officials at the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee decided to move the men’s and women’s Olympic marathons 500 miles to the north to Sapporo due to expected extreme heat this July.
Lung-filling smoke, on the other hand, is seen as a relatively new threat to sports, impacting not only the this year’s Australian Open but also college football games in the Sacramento area during the California wildfires of 2018.
Craig Tiley, the Aussie Open tournament director, grappled with how to keep players safe and to keep the tournament going. “Air quality is a very complex and confusing issue,” Tiley told The Guardian in mid January. “We’ve been through the journey on extreme heat and we know when players respond to extreme heat, it’s in many different ways. We’ve had conditions where players have pulled out of matches. I do think air quality for sport and for tennis is a conversation we’re going to have more of in the future. It is potentially the new normal.” (BOLD my emphasis)
THE SPORTS WORLD NEEDS TO ACT ON CLIMATE; HOW ABOUT ENDORSING CARBON PRICING?
The ramifications for sports of our “new normal,” climate changed world will likely go far beyond the effects of smoke from wild/bushfires. In the coming years, sports could see:
- More cancellations of all manner of sports events as a result of more frequent, more intense floods;
- Depressed participation and attendance due to increased ubiquitousness of extreme heat;
- Reduced participation in sports at the macro level could negatively impact public health (more sedentary lifestyles), as well as quality of play (something the NFL is concerned about as participation in football declines due to concerns about head injury);
- Fewer venues will be able to host mega sports events. A 2018 study led by led by Daniel Scott, a geography professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, concluded that nine former Winter Olympics sites may not be able to host the Games by mid-century thanks to increased temperatures.
In light of these serious threats to sports coming down the pike in the not-too-distant future — the scientific consensus is that humanity needs to decarbonize by 45 percent by 2030 in order to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change — will commissioners, team owners and more use their considerable influence to publicly urge real climate actions?
If one assumes that the men (and the few women, at least as of now) who run sports businesses — and the media companies that cover them — are forward-looking and insightful, then that answer should be a resounding yes. The harsh negative economic implications alone of ignoring climate change certainly should spur positive responses.
Here’s one: Sports league commissioners in the U.S. could endorse the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA) of 2019 (H.R. 763), a carbon pricing bill which is currently making its way through the House of Representatives. It is the first carbon pricing legislation to garner bipartisan support, although, as of now, the lion’s share of co-sponsors are Democrats.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group that lobbies Members of Congress of both parties in support of EICDA]
Proceeds from the fee, which will be imposed where carbon enters the economy, at mines, wells and at the border, will NOT go to the federal treasury (as would be the case with a tax). Rather, they will be distributed monthly and evenly to each U.S. household, based on size.
An independent, third party analysis of the bill claims that EICDA will:
- Reduce U.S. carbon emissions by at least 40 percent in the first 12 years (that gets us close to the 45 percent reduction by 2030);
- Not increase the size of government (appeals to small government conservatives)
- Be a net financial benefit to households on the bottom two thirds of the income scale as they will receive more in dividends than they pay in higher prices due to the fee (appeals to progressives);
- Improve public health and save lives through reduced air pollution;
- Create 2.1 million jobs thanks to economic growth resulting from the transition to a cleaner economy
GSB INVITES U.S. PRO SPORTS COMMISSIONERS TO DISCUSS EICDA
Commissioners Gary Bettman (NHL), Cathy Englebert (WNBA), Don Garber (MLS), Roger Goodell (NFL), Rob Manfred (MLB) and Adam Silver (NBA), consider this an invitation to discuss the merits of EICDA, with the goal being an endorsement by your league. It will be great for business!
Like you, I am based in New York. I will meet with you anytime, anyplace you like. I’ll keep it to 15 minutes if need be.
Coffee is on me.
This is for real: GreenSportsBlog will request meetings with each of the commissioners to discuss EICDA.
Watch this space.