SPORTS@COP: Athlete Advocacy for Climate Action

(Approximately 9 minute read)

In an earlier post, I wrote about The Last Game documentary and its filming in Scotland during the COP26 global climate conference last November. That was only one reason for the trip.

Athletes Assembly

Last summer, I joined EcoAthletes, a climate advocacy nonprofit that seeks to leverage the platform and social power of athletes to build momentum in combating climate change. Their hashtag is sparking the #ClimateComeback and we have our rally caps on.

Through their organization I was invited to take part in an Athletes Assembly on the “Athletes Day of Action” at COP26 in Glasgow. At the same event, I co-presented the COP26 Sports Community Manifesto. It was a bucket-list experience for me to attend and take part in a COP event, but I wasn’t prepared for how impressed and inspired I would be by the people I met along the way. I hope by sharing their efforts, you too can be motivated into action.

The first inspirational character is a fellow EcoAthletes Champion, a young cricketer named Joe Cooke.

When I met Joe in the lobby of the Wood House in Glasgow, he immediately felt like a friendly face and helped calmed my nerves. We had been notified that BBC, Sky Sports would be among a large contingent of virtual attendees listening in and the climate stripes painted on the building across the street only added to the weight of responsibility I felt to properly represent this EcoAthletes initiative. But Joe didn’t seem nervous and very quickly we got chatting about our respective theses as students – Joe researched how climate would impact cricket and I researched how to make ice rinks more energy efficient and thus have a lower climate impact.

Climate stripes, which visualize the trend of planetary warming in the last century, displayed on a Glasgow building.

He explained how his findings essentially showed that climate change was an existential threat to his sport. Specifically, he looked at how heatwaves, droughts, and monsoons all changing in length and intensity – are expected to have a major impact on cricket.

I don’t know much about cricket, so I learned matches are played between April and September; a long season, through the heat of the summer. I was even more shocked when he said matches can last three to five days with single games taking six hours. It’s no wonder it’s vulnerable to extreme weather, and it is a wonder why   the entire cricket community isn’t up-in-arms advocating for change like Joe is.

Upon joining the Athletes Assembly we met David Pocock. Joe seemed a bit starstruck and commended David for the retired rugby star accomplishments in Australia. I had no idea who he was, so I asked what sport he played and Joe looked at me like I had ten heads. But David humbly explained that he was an Australian rugby union player and that he and his wife had done some ecosystem restoration work. Modest is an understatement, as I later Googled Pocock and discovered that among a large list of impressive accomplishments on a host of social issues, including climate, he is also a legendary former captain of the Australian national rugby union team (the Wallabies) who also holds a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture and an additional Leadership degree from Harvard.

Athlete advocates for climate action: Joe Cooke (left) and David Pocock (right)

Some other notable people taking part in the athletes discussion were Alexandra Rickham, Paralympic medal-winning sailor and Eco-Warrior (and EcoAthletes advisory board member) and Fiona Burnet a Team Scotland and Team GB hockey player. Fi and I jockeyed for a moment about which of our specialties is the default “hockey” sport, but in the UK, “field” has a clear lead over “ice”.

The discussion at the Athletes Assembly was both broad and deep. We started with some shared experiences in speaking-out about climate. In particular, we talked about fielding criticism from the public when advocating for a cause. Several of the athletes with larger followings shared about being branded hypocrites for advocating for climate action by fans, aka trolls.

Joe experienced similar unpleasant trolling.  He began to feel that his ability to have his climate advocacy be accepted was tied to his performance.  Otherwise, he would be told to, in the words of Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s infamous criticism of LeBron James, “shut up and dribble”.

The female athletes spoke up about how trolls would attack them from the double-layered “nobody cares” angle. They feel they need to 1) speak out on behalf of climate action on top of, 2) advocating on behalf of their own sport’s validity. I left this part of the conversation feeling like I was in good company and also inspired to be more courageous about being loud.

Then, the conversation dove deeper than I had expected.

We delved into the challenges of communicating the clear and present danger presented by the climate crisis and the need for real action with our individual sport federations. The talk gave me the words to express a feeling that I hadn’t been able to piece together directly: That unfortunately to sports federations, advocating for climate action can be seen as “competing” with other causes for importance.

I’ve always struggled with this concept because all of my research tells me that the climate crisis is the most fundamental issue humanity faces. Turning the climate crisis into climate action is critical to creating social justice as well as to improving public health. I recognize that truth while also feeling it’s important to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research, mental health support, LGBTQ+ rights, among countless other important causes. The science tells us that the poorest and most marginalized communities are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Every athlete in the Assembly agreed that the intersectionality of climate justice, equity and inclusion needs much more oxygen and action.

Alexandra is the Head of Sustainability for World Sailing and has sports inclusion and diversity roles on her CV as well. She gave interesting perspective about being on the other side of the table from where she sat as an athlete. She voiced that the details of putting ideals and ambitions into practice can often be equally challenging to bringing attention to the issue in the first place. However, with World Sailing, she’s helped establish concrete targets for their organization by spearheading their Sustainability Agenda 2030, which sets a model for other sports organizations to follow.

We also discussed how climate advocacy can be perceived as a threat to an organization’s bottom line. In particular, we noted the courage and integrity it takes to turn down sponsorship funding when it comes from a company with misaligned values (like an oil company). Fiona talked about having a second job at the Scottish Parliament to help shape policy and create change. Unfortunately for most female athletes, having other work outside of sport is a necessity, but Fi talked about this as being, in some ways, an advantage because we have another route to invoke progress.

Athlete advocate for climate action, Fiona Burnet (right), summarizing parts of our conversation for virtual attendees

Several of the athletes talked about how they were already seeing weather impact their ability to compete in their sports. From the heat at the summer Olympics to the lack of snow fall in the Winter Games – it was felt across the board. As far as ice hockey is concerned, climate change is having a significant, negative impact, on the number days when people can play outdoors on frozen ponds, and increasing global temperatures will continue to drive indoor rink refrigeration costs skywards. In North America, when the only route to entry becomes organized, indoor and expensive hockey, that means fewer people will have access to the sport that I love.

We all expressed a frustration with what we were hearing about progress at COP26 so far, with politicians and representatives continuing to say it was important to act yet not committing to actual policy.  We can look to the lack of action on the demands of the Sports Community Manifesto for precisely where we felt leaders missed the mark.

The Climate Manifesto

After the private athlete discussion (and after a snack break), Joe and I returned to the stage to introduce the world to the EcoAthletes’ Sports Community Manifesto.

A screen-capture of the public broadcast where Joe Cooke (stage left) and I presented the EcoAthletes’ Sports Community Manifesto

The pledge, which ultimately garnered over 300 signatures from athletes, sports leaders, teams and more, served to urge critical action by the delegates to COP26. It had four pillars or demands:

  • The first was to secure net zero emissions by 2050 and maintain the possibility of not exceeding 1.5 degrees of global warming. Experts say this is possible only with radical and bold commitments to international change.
  • Pillar two demanded that policy makers protect communities and natural habitats. We know that species around the world are going extinct at an alarming rate and that many communities are under-threat from increasing natural disasters and sea-level rise.
  • Our third request was that leaders put their money where their mouth is and commit the financial resources required to accomplish the first two demands. 
  • Finally, the community urged leaders to finalize the Paris rule book, the framework for international action on the historic Paris Agreement made in 2015 at COP25.
The four-pillars of the Manifesto

Afterthoughts

Another EcoAthletes connection to the COP26 Athletes Day of Action was Dr. Madeleine ‘Maddy’ Orr and she is also deserving of some air time.

Maddy, is a Canadian who works at Loughborough University in London, developing the world’s first Masters degree in Sustainable Sport Business. The founder of the Sports Ecology Group, her academic specialty is  “in climate vulnerability and adaptation in the sport sector.”  Maddy’s primary research is on climate adaptation in the sports sector and how prepared organizations and athletes will be for the predicted conditions. Secondarily, she researches sport as a platform for climate communication.

There is a reason she was awarded the distinction of a Forbes 30 Under 30 – after all, she wears the hats of researcher, educator, advocate, and entrepreneur, all regarding the power of sports and athletes when it comes to climate change.

After COP26, I took part in one of her studies during which she interviewed me about my advocacy efforts. We discussed some of the challenges I’ve encountered when taking on charitable work – heart health, mental health, pride and LGBTQ+ rights, and more recently, climate change. After conducting interviews with additional athletes, she will synthesize conclusions on how to be most effective when working at the nexus of sport and climate change.

David Pocock also stepped up his game after COP26, jumping into politics.

In February, he gave a speech at the Australian Parliament and later waged an outsider senate campaign as an independent in the capital district of Canberra.  He made climate action one of the core tenets of his campaign. In podcasts, he said ‘Going up to COP26 last year was a reminder just how out of step we are’ and also expressed sorrow about how past and present climate inaction will have immediate impacts on the island-pacific home-nations of nearly half of his past rugby teammates.

Pocock website is a dream: half dedicated to rugby and half dedicated to his senate campaign, in a way that I hope to see in the future for some of my past Canadian teammates (Brianne Jenner for Canadian Prime Minister, anyone?). He speaks to the hypocrisy that Australia is still subsidizing fossil fuels to the order of $AUS12 billion annually and suggests an alternative reality in which the country dedicates that money to solutions rather than exacerbating the problems.

The landing of Pocock’s website

And if he wasn’t already oozing with integrity and leadership, I read that he and his wife, Emma, refused to sign a formal marriage contract until gay couples were afforded equal rights under the law and held true to that promise by only marrying after same-sex marriage legislation was passed.

The most fitting postscript to Sport@COP26 was when I read that David Pocock was announced the winner of his senate race. Even better, given the way the results shook out nationwide, Pocock will have a crucial vote. From what I understand of the complicated political situation in Australia, the left-leaning, sort-of pro-climate-action Labour party won the most seats, kicking out the climate-denying Conservatives (mis-named the Liberal party), but they didn’t win a majority. To govern, Labour will need to enter a coalition with the Green party and independents like Pocock.

I initially went into Engineering because I wanted to advance technical climate solutions. However, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that we have most of the technology we need. What we lack is the political will and leadership – and thanks to the voters of Canberra, David Pocock is going to demonstrate both in the most literal and committed way.

While I’m still brainstorming how I personally can do more, I recently signed a letter, in collaboration with EcoAthletes and 23 other US-based athletes, to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), urging him to get the climate bill currently under consideration over the finish line. Like any sports underdog story, we need a full team effort to see the bold change necessary to avoid and reduce the worst impacts coming in the very near future.

A very hot or inhospitably hot future – lives hinge on the choices of today
(Visualization from Chapter 1 of the IPCC 6th Assessment Climate Report)

Hey there!

I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.

More About Me

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