The 2020 Australian Open is being played in the shadow of the massive and tragic bushfires that have gripped the entire continent. Climate change is seen by most experts as exacerbating the intensity and scope of the fires.
Yet sports organizations and governing bodies in the country have largely stayed away from climate change.
Will the bushfires, set against the backdrop of a high profile Grand Slam tennis event, provide an opening for the Australian sports community to engage on climate?
The 2020 Australian Open in Melbourne was blessed by occasional rain during the tournament’s first week.
In normal times, this sentence would would seem strange. After all, rain can play havoc with keeping a tournament on schedule, even with Melbourne Olympic Park boasting three indoor venues.
Of course these are certainly not normal times, especially in Australia, which has been buffeted by the most apocalyptic bushfire season in at least four decades. According to Vox¹, 29 people have been killed, over 2,500 homes and 27 million acres have gone up in flames, and one billion animals are estimated dead.
So, last week’s showers and cooler temperatures, which slowed the spread of blazes and kept the smog and pollution away from Melbourne, were welcomed by players, fans, and Tennis Australia².
Sheila Nguyen, Executive Director of Sport Environment Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainable sport in Australia and New Zealand, had mixed emotions about the improving weather conditions in Melbourne when we spoke last Friday.
“Today is such a nice day, which is great for the players and fans,” Nguyen said. “My concern is that, if this temperate weather persists, people will largely forget what it was like during the worst of the fires, with the smog and dirty air. It’s human nature.”
Despite the tragic consequences of the bushfires and the tendency of people not directly impacted by them to forget, Nguyen sees an emerging potential silver lining emerging around climate change in real time.
“Climate change has been a dirty phrase in much of Australia, thanks in large part due to a lack of leadership,” acknowledged Nguyen. “But, over the last year, and especially in just the past month, the brushfires have started to shift the conversation and public attitudes in the right direction. While I don’t have hard data to share, anecdotally I can say that a lot of people who never mentioned climate change — in business, politics and elsewhere — and who instead used to use less controversial terms like ‘sustainability’ or ‘circular economy’, have changed the way they talk. They now use the term ‘climate change’ and speak of it as fact and something to be dealt with. We have a long way to go here in Australia but people are being more courageous on climate and that’s a start.”
Some Australian sports governing bodies have stepped up to the starting line by signing on to the U.N.’s Sport For Climate Action framework, including Tennis Australia, Bowls Australia (lawn bowling, which is very popular Down Under), the Richmond Football Club, and the Melbourne Cricket Club.
Participants in the framework commit to adhere to the following five principles:
- Undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility;
- Reduce overall climate impact;
- Educate for climate action;
- Promote sustainable and responsible consumption;
- Advocate for climate action through communication.
Tennis Australia, working with Sport Environment Alliance, will make some strides on Principles 1 and 2 for the 2021 Australian Open, increasing the use of products with recycled content and upping recycling at the event. Melbourne Cricket Ground has already honed in on Principle 4, sharing positive recycling practices with its fans.
Coming to watch the @StarsBBL at the MCG this season? There are many ways you can help us stay green! 💚
🚰 Fill up your water bottle at our refill stations around the ground
🚋 Take public transport or ride your bike
♻️ Put your rubbish in the correct bin pic.twitter.com/z3d4HluutX
— Melbourne Cricket Ground (@MCG) January 8, 2020
That might seem like “small ball” to someone reading this in Miami or Milan but Nguyen asserts that it’s a big deal in Melbourne.
“The Australian sports industry is younger than their counterparts in North America and Europe,” Nguyen noted. “We’re behind. And so things like recycling and energy efficient lightbulbs, which have been the rule for more than a decade in the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, are new here.”
Sports Environment Alliance believes the best way Australian sport can catch up to the rest of the world, green-wise, is to utilize its most powerful influencers, athletes.
“We will be hosting an training session, focused on the environment and climate, for interested athletes in late February,” shared Nguyen. “SEA will teach them about climate science as well as how to talk about climate in the media in a positive way, focusing on innovation and solutions. Ultimately, we want the athletes to be able to share what they know with their fan bases so the fans change behaviors on a macro-level related to water conservation, materials (consume less and better), and energy (turn off the lights and transition to renewables- solar, EV, etc). By doing so, the athletes will amplifying the voice of the planet so we can protect the places where we play.”
GSB’s Take: Nguyen is correct that attention paid to the bushfires surrounding the Australian Open would decrease dramatically once the rains and cooler temperatures arrived and the danger to players and fans receded.
ESPN devoted several minutes of bushfire coverage on its opening night broadcast. Anchor Chris McKendry and John McEnroe discussed how smoke and smog from the fires forced postponement of some qualifying round matches, before the weather improved in time for the main draw to begin.
Neither McEnroe nor McKendry mentioned climate change during their conversation about the bushfires.
That’s why Sport Environment Alliance’s efforts to train Australian athletes to engage on climate and other environmental issues is an important step. Because the more athletes talk about climate change and the need for climate action, the more the broadcasters who cover them will do the same.
And as conversation around climate becomes normalized on sports broadcasts, it says here that sports fans will increasingly support climate action on the part of their favorite sports, teams, players, and beyond.
¹ As of January 24, 2020
² Tennis Australia is the sport’s governing body in that country.