How sport is threatened by the climate crisis

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Since 1998, the top 20 hottest years on record have all occurred, with 2020 being the joint hottest year on record.  

The earth’s surface temperature is rising, and NASA says humanity must adapt or mitigate in order to cope.  

While mitigation through the reduction and stabilisation of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere is happening, the effects of climate change are already starting to be felt, and this is where adaptation comes in.  

Sports is no exception to this. No industry is immune to the consequences of climate change, and more disruption is coming. 

For example, when four players had to withdraw from the 2018 US Open owing to excessive heat, major players began to push for stricter heat rules which have since been enacted at both the Australian and US Open. 

The Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was one of the hottest and most humid Olympics ever held. As a result, event times were being pushed back and forth.  

Organisers used tents, fans, and machines to try new ways to keep spectators cool, much of which increased energy use and their footprint. 

“Heat stress resulting from climate change will cause 38,000 additional fatalities per year worldwide between 2030 and 2050,” according to the World Health Organization, “since it worsens existing health conditions and triggers heat stroke and exhaustion.” 

Heat has impacted cricket in Australia, too, with a number of games having to be cancelled, as evidenced by England Captain Joe Root being taken to hospital during the fifth Test in 2018 when the temperature on the playing ground hit 57 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit).  

To tackle this, cricket implemented an “extreme heat policy” that gave umpires additional powers. 

On the other hand, there’s also winter sports, which are completely dependent on climatic conditions for their viability. 

Only 12 of the previous 21 Winter Olympic host cities will be reliable locations for winter sport’s showcase event by 2050, according to the RTA report, posing a significant challenge for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in identifying the cities capable of hosting future games and ensuring their infrastructure is adequate. 

As well as high temperatures, there are other effects of climate change that impact global sports as a whole. 

Decreasing air quality is one such issue. Due to the increased volumes of air they breathe during training and competition, high-performance athletes are considered more vulnerable to smoke and poor air quality. 

Extreme events like forest fires, which are the result of higher temperatures, mean that marathons have had to be cancelled in the United States with more and more athletes saying, “Races are being cancelled at a far higher rate than in the past.” 

Fires also caused athletes to need treatment at the Australian Tennis Open, with several then having to retire due to breathing difficulties. 

 

Flooding will also have a huge impact on sports at all levels in the future. 

As the world gets warmer, more water evaporates from our lakes and oceans, which means more water in the sky, more intense rain events, and more floods.  

For sports, this translates to unplayable surfaces. 

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) in England released a report in June 2020 that included some frightening new forecasts for climatic intervention in sports, such as one-quarter of English Football League venues facing annual floods by 2050. 

It indicated that unless infrastructure is addressed, more and more professional matches will be postponed due to weather in the next 30 years.  

This follows the English football league’s cancellation of 25 games one season and 14 the next due to inclement weather in the previous five years. 

Every season, grassroots football teams also miss an average of seven weeks due to inclement weather, with more than a third losing two to three months. 

Due to the arrival of typhoon Hagibis, three matches at the 2019 Rugby Union World Cup in Japan were cancelled. 

Cricket will be the most affected by climate change of all the major pitch sports. “Extreme heat is affecting cricket,” the ECB noted, “but rainfall and floods are also having a huge impact.”  

As sea levels rise, stadiums such as TD Garden in Boston, Citi Field in New York, and many others around the world will experience flooding and may no longer be viable at all. 

 

When planning for the future, sports administrators can no longer consider weather as simply unpredictable and must plan for the worst-case scenarios, all due to climate change.  

Without action, the amount of time professional sport loses will only increase, lowering revenues and decreasing interest in the product. 

Similarly, players and athletes must adjust to how climate change will affect their sport’s nature.  

Those who plan ahead of time and adjust well are the most likely to succeed. 

This is taking place. Given the current trajectories, a negative impact on sports is unavoidable.  

It’s now time for the industry to take note, step up, and lead the way toward a more sustainable future – it’s time to Play It Green.