Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish high school student who sparked a global wave of student climate strikes, accused world leaders of gross negligence regarding the climate crisis in a powerful speech at this week’s U.N. Climate Summit.
What would the newly-minted face of the climate movement say to the leaders of the sports-greening movement?
As I moderated one Green-Sports-themed panel at Climate Week NYC on Wednesday and attended another, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What would Greta ask?” if she were in the moderator’s chair.
Both “Playing On Thin Ice,” the panel I guided about the effects of climate change on winter sports, and “Women, Climate, and Sports,” a discussion moderated by Dr. Allen Hershkowitz on the impactful yet under-publicized role of women in the Green-Sports world, ping-ponged between two approaches:
- GO SLOW AND STEADY: Since climate change is in the world of politics and the Grand Poobahs of the sports world (league and governing body commissioners, team executives, corporate sponsors) generally like to keep things as apolitical as possible, it is best not to rock the boat, best not to offend. Consistent, non-controversial, smaller steps are the way to go here.
- GO FAST AND BIG: We don’t have the time to go small. Per the 2018 IPCC report, humanity has 11 years to decarbonize by 45 percent if humanity is going to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change. Which means that decarbonization needs to have started yesterday. Sports must use its massive platform and high-volume megaphone more powerfully, starting NOW.
Yours truly on the far right at Wednesday’s “Playing On Thin Ice” panel as part of Climate Week NYC. Panelists, from far left, are Sergey Rybakov of The Last Game; Omar Mitchell of the NHL and Winston Binch, Protect Our Winters board member (Photo credit: Recipric)
There is no doubt that Thunberg would strongly align with approach #2.
So, I imagine Thunberg would say something like this to executives from the leagues and sports governing bodies who bear the responsibility for environmental sustainability within their organizations:
I am not an athlete but I am here to speak for the sportswomen and men of the future, and for their future fans. Those of my generation and the generations after mine.
On their behalf, I am here to say that you in the Green-Sports movement are failing us.
Yes, you are “United Behind the Science’ of climate change.
Yes, you’ve made some improvements on composting and energy efficient lighting.
Yes, you’ve helped save lives in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere through worthy offset programs.
And yet, as I said before, you are failing us.
Because those initiatives are not nearly enough to make a real impact on the climate crisis at the scale needed. Not doing so will make it much harder for people in my generation and the generations after us to play sports — or to simply exist — in a healthy environment.
And you have the power to make a big difference.
Billions of people all over the world follow sport passionately.
I have seen the square in Stockholm where I started my Friday climate strike become a ghost town when the Swedish national football team is playing. Yes, you have the power — to move from failing us to help save us!
The Olympic motto — Faster, Higher, Stronger — shows you the way.
Move FASTER. Much faster. Humanity is behind by two goals and the match is in the 90th minute. Our generation will help coach and push you!
Aim Much HIGHER. Higher than LED lights. You tell us that fan and team travel is a massive component of sports’ carbon footprint. Sports governing bodies like FIFA and the IOC; leagues like the NFL and the English Premier League and the media who partner with them are wealthy! Use some of that wealth to invest in companies pioneering low-carbon transportation technologies and then let us know you are doing it. Our generation will applaud you and use those technologies that lead the low-carbon transportation revolution!
Go STRONGER. I challenge sports league executives to make real public commitments to fans take on climate change. Speak to us at the stadiums and via the sports media. Our generation will be with you!
You, the Green-Sports world, are failing us. But you have the power and the resources to make a comeback. Our future depends on it.
My actual take on what the Green-Sports world has done and is more nuanced than my imagination’s vision of how Thunberg might react.
I think the people and organizations who conceived, incubated and built the Green-Sports movement are owed a debt of gratitude.
We would not be in a place for The Thunberg Of My Mind to label us as failures without the painstaking, pioneering, and time-consuming work of:
- Allen Hershkowitz: A Founding Father of the Green-Sports movement while at NRDC in the mid 2000s, he helped midwife the Green Sports Alliance and brought the North American pro sports leagues and college sports governing bodies, as well as global sports organizations to the Green-Sports table. He is a founding director of SandSI, and is also environmental science advisor of the New York Yankees.
- Robert Redford: An NRDC board member in the mid 2000s, the legendary actor, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and activist said, “If you want to meet Americans, you’ve got to go to a baseball game or a football game. You’ve got to go to one of these stadiums. That’s where America is.”
- The Philadelphia Eagles and minority owner Christina Weiss Lurie: Its Go Green Initiative was born in 2004.
- The NHL: The league will celebrate the 10th anniversary of NHL Green in 2020.
- The University of Colorado Athletics Department and Environment Center, which pioneered Green-Sports sponsorships with its Ralphie’s Green Stampede initiative.
The 90 minute video of “Women, Climate and Sports,” the Climate Week NYC panel moderated by Allen Hershkowitz
Without these people and organizations — and many, many more — there would be no Green-Sports movement to prod!
That said, I believe that the Thunberg Of My Mind is spot on in her belief that we in the Green-Sports world must take the Olympic motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger to heart on climate action or else we will fail her and her GenZ compatriots, not to mention the generations to follow.
Which way will Green-Sports — and all sports for that matter — go? SLOW AND STEADY or STRONGER, FASTER, HIGHER?
Truth is, we don’t know right now.
Here is one way we will know that the “Olympic Motto approach” would be winning: When U.S. pro sports leagues and the NCAA follow Protect Our Winters (POW), the climate change-fighting organization led in part by elite winter sports athletes, in endorsing carbon pricing legislation at the Federal level in the U.S.
“That’s impossible,” You say. “That is way too political for the leagues, teams and the NCAA to get involved in.”
The leagues got involved in the very political sports gambling issue. And the San Francisco Giants, and the Tampa Bay Rays each wrote “Friend of the Court” briefs in favor of the gay marriage U.S. Supreme Court case.
And the thing is, if the sports world does not go big on potential macro climate solutions like carbon pricing, it is saying to Thunberg and her generational cohorts that they don’t really matter. In that case, it easy to imagine Thunberg scold us with her now infamous “How dare you?!?!” U.N. admonition.
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