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Hey Sports Fans: Time to Deal with Climate Change, and it Won't be Cheap

Roman Kilisek's picture
Analyst, Writer, Researcher, Global Oil and Gas Breaking Energy

Roman Kilisek is an energy analyst and international affairs professional based in New York. Currently, he is writing, reporting and analyzing social, economic and political developments that may...

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Snow And High Winds Hit The UK

Just two weeks ago, the year 2014 was dubbed the hottest year on earth since the start of record keeping in 1880. Separate data compilations from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed this 2014 record, as reported by Justin Gillis of The New York Times. Now, the Australian Climate Institute finds in a new report – “Sport and Climate Impacts: How much heat can sport handle”? – that more frequent and extreme weather events “threaten the viability of much of Australian sport as it’s currently played, either in the back yard, at local grounds, or in professional tournaments [- with football, cricket, tennis and more] “struggling to adapt to, or prepare for, the impacts of climate change.”

Overview of Indicators Consistent with a Pattern of Warming roman climate sports1

Source: Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO

Given the already extreme temperatures Australia is experiencing in its summer, it may be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change among developed nations. Against the background of generally high climate variability globally, long-term data and analysis from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO show further warming of the atmosphere and oceans ‘Down Under’. Check out the following graphic: 

Annual Mean Temperature Changes Across Australia since 1910

 roman climate sports2Source: Bureau of Meteorology (Australia)

Admittedly, it did not cross my mind when I recently watched professional tennis players playing at the Australian Open 2015 that extreme heat policies, which may lead to a temporary suspension of play if certain heat exposure thresholds are crossed, intended to protect the health of both athletes and spectators may soon not be enough to keep the tournament going. In 2014, the Australian Open saw play suspended after a succession of professional tennis players suffered from dizziness, cramp and fatigue in the 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. This is already bad enough but it actually could get worse if scientists’ predictions turn out to be only vaguely accurate:

Australia in the Crosshairs of Climate Change roman climate sports3Source: The Climate Institute; enlarge here

Host cities and organizers will be forced to cancel, postpone or perhaps even move outdoor sporting events to alternate locations or shift them to different seasons of the year. This could be a big deal for the sports (entertainment) industry. Sport is embedded in Australian society – central to culture and economy. It is not different in American society with both professional and ‘amateur’ sports deeply rooted in American popular culture. The popularity of all kinds of sports is sky-high – including fan interest and support. At the same time, the impacts of climate change on sport are far-reaching. Extreme heat in particular can affect the health of athletes and spectators.

2014 Australian Open - Day 2

A ballboy faints in the heat, as Melbourne heads towards 43 degrees celsius during day two of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.

In the US, as a sports fan you seem not to be able to catch a break from professional sports: baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey et cetera all organized nicely around the yearly calendar to prevent any ‘scheduling conflicts’ and keep you busy all year round if you so desire. Well, climate change could blow up this calendar in the US as well as in Australia due to “overheated [or] washed out” sport events, which is bad for business. Yes, the sports industry is a business and sports content demands increasingly high prices, which are eventually paid for by the fan via monthly television fees or high admission prices for live events. But these events have to take place at the scheduled time and without major interruptions. Now, imagine major disruptions due to the impacts of climate change and all the knock-on economic impacts of those disruptions.

The Climate Institute’s report concludes aptly what also applies to the US situation:

Sport is a key entertainment or pastime for our nation. If more than 80 per cent of the nation is involved in sport at least recreationally, then it is an element of life to be preserved for future generations. All – from professional players and their management, to spectators and commentators – need to be aware of the risks posed by climate change to sport. (…) If sport is to keep its fan base and continue earning big profits, arenas and sports grounds across the nation will have to make adaptations to keep players and fans safe. Various upgrades, from retractable roofs to flood proofing operating systems, are underway. These often come with additional programs on energy efficiency [to compensate for increased cooling costs], renewable energy, water conservation, recycling and waste management. This has undoubtedly been motivated by cuts to operating costs as much as by generating environmental benefits. They are all part of attempts to increase resilience to extreme weather events and changed rainfall patterns.”

Building Greater Resilience roman climate sports4Source: The Climate Institute 

So, the sports angle actually appears very promising in bringing more awareness to climate change and its very real impacts. Note, given that sports bring significant revenues to the US as well as Australian economies – $13 billion a year in the latter case, according to the report – at the very least attention is guaranteed. “Climate change is putting our weather on steroids. With greater warming, more extreme heat, changes in rainfall and more intense storms, there are questions about just how far we can push players in elite and local sport. Questions also grow about whether the way some of our sport is played, or watched, is safe or sustainable,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute (Australia). Consider another example from the report regarding winter sports: “Nine out of the 16 world cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics in the 20th century could not again guarantee proper snow conditions by the end of the 21st century.”

In sum, improving resilience will come at significant financial costs. But in order to ensure that those investments are sufficient and adequate to cope with climate change, major sports infrastructure projects “should not be constructed or enhanced without clear consideration of climate risks,” the report stresses. Whatever is done to preserve our nation’s favorite pastime should be tailored to the forecast of climate conditions in specific regions whether the venues are for professional or recreational sports purposes.

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