Could the Olympics solve Global Warming?

Could the Olympics be the organisation to solve global warming?

If you are looking to reduce carbon dioxide and its world-warming cousins in the atmosphere, you really have two options. The first is to find that moon-shot technology which radically disrupts global energy practices. The second is create the circumstances for international co-operation. Could the International Olympic Committee be the organisation to solve global warming?

When thinking about solutions to contemporary energy practices, first thoughts tend towards technological innovation. These projects receive capital through governmental organisations like ARPA-E, universities, and the broad venture capital community. But whether it be the next new battery; step changes in hydroelectric, nuclear, wind; or ambitious geoengineering projects; we are yet to find that moon-shot technology which radically disrupts the practices of global energy. Awesome innovative cultures are producing incremental gains, but are these gains enough?

The second thoughts, then, may go towards global co-operation. Every two years we see spectacular examples of this, in the form of the summer and winter Olympics. The Olympic and Paralympic Games, whether their winter or summer variety, are significantly affected by changing global geography. The organising committees hold sway not only through host selection, but also as global thought leaders.

The Olympics: directly affected

There are three categories in which the Olympics is directly affected by physical and regulatory manifestations of climate change. The first is its athletes’ ability to train, and even for its participant nations to survive. As viable training grounds shrink, through greater variability in outdoor conditions,[1] the nature of ‘work-in-progress’ athletic training would shift. Inequity in terms of funding or preparatory facilities is not new, and elite athletes already seek optimal training conditions.[2] But this deepens the challenge. Indeed, island states, extinguished by ocean rises, may be generating athletes under the banners of independent or refugee.

The second is domestic infrastructure regulations. As host cities bid for and then build Olympic infrastructure, they face local, rising, regulation. This changes the costs and ambitions of the bids.

Building on this, the third is hosts’ ecological limitations. In The Lancet, a medical journal, researchers discuss how fewer countries will retain the potential to host outside summer sport. Some sports, such as marathons, become harder to operate given the current format’s intensity.[3] Ben Jervey in National Geographic describes the challenges with winter games. Not only do certain sports, like skeleton, face prohibitive cost and elimination, but former host cities are losing their ecological capacity to bid again. Artificial snow, long in use, is now matched with extreme examples like Vancouver 2010 airlifting ice up mountains.[4] And both Olympics are affected by the risk of disease, exacerbated by climate change, as displayed at Rio 2016 with Zika.[5]

The Olympics: their response

The current Olympic response to climate change is embedded within ‘the Olympic Agenda 2020’. The current phase of the ‘Implementation Plan – 2016 and beyond’ puts a new ‘special focus’ on ecological sustainability in assessing host cities’ bids. They want to extend sustainable practices along all stages of bidding, whilst levering policy knowledge from new strategic partnerships with UN organisations like WHO and the World Food Program.[6] It remains to be seen whether this deeper emphasis will make material differences, and recent history may suggest scepticism. For example, Beijing 2008’s smog reduction success did not last.[7] [8] But the host city bidding process does enable stricter controls. And amongst all the controversy of international sport,[9] [10] there is still scope for thought-leadership. Perhaps they can rely on the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics:

The important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. Spreading these principles is to prepare a more valiant, more strong and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity. [11] (682 words)

[1] The word ‘variability’ occurs 711 times in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Climate Change 2014 (Part A) report

[2] See, for example, the training difficulties of Olympians Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani, who both achieved national records in their respective Olympic games

[3] Smith, Kirk R et alia (2016, 13 August). ‘The last Summer Olympics? Climate change, health, and work outdoors’, The Lancet, Volume 388 , Issue 10045 , p642 – 644. Retrieved from http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)31335-6/abstract

[4] Jervey, Ben (2014, February 22). ‘Climate change threatens the future of the Winter Olympics’. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140221-climate-change-winter-olympics-global-warming-science/

[5] Mercer, Greg (2016, Feb 24). ‘The link between Zika and climate change’. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/02/zika-and-climate-change/470643/

[6] International Olympic Committee (2016). ‘Olympic Agenda 2020 / Implementation Plan – 2016 and Beyond’. Retrieved from https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Olympic-Agenda-2020/Olympic-Agenda-2020-Implementation-Plan-2016-and-Beyond.pdf#_ga=1.34535141.517009464.1478221155

[7] Ramzy, Austin (2008, April 15). ‘Beijing’s Olympic War on Smog’. TIME.Com. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1730918,00.html

[8] BBC (2015, December 7). ‘Beijing smog: Images before and after’. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-35028483

[9] BBC (2016, August 8). ‘Rio Paralympics 2016: Russian athletes banned after doping scandal’. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/sport/disability-sport/37002582

[10] Ingle, Sean (2016, August 25). ‘Tokyo Olympic games corruption claims bring scandal back to the IOC’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/may/11/tokyo-olympic-games-2020-ioc-international-olympic-committee-corruption-bid-scandal

[11] Translated from French, 24th July 1908, p793, T. A. Cook Fourth Olympiad (1909). Retrieved from http://library.la84.org/6oic/OfficialReports/1908/1908.pdf

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Student comments on Could the Olympics solve Global Warming?

  1. Very interesting post, John! I also wrote a post on the same topic, I invite you to check it out at: https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/record-breaking-athletes-battle-record-breaking-temperatures-climate-change-as-a-threat-to-the-olympics/

    My approach was to discuss what the Olympic Movement has been doing so far (e.g. going big on climate change at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony) and should consider doing moving forward (e.g. associate the Olympic brand only with carbon-free initiatives or consider adaptive measures such as hosting endurance events in the winter or at night.) Your post focuses on the Olympics’ potential to act as a global platform for pushing forward the climate change conversation. I agree with you that no other event trumps the Olympics in terms of fostering global co-operation, and I think your framing of the call for IOC action as a logical follow up to Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic vision is very astute. As you say, the sustainability directives included in the Olympic Agenda 2020 are a step in the right direction. My question to you would be: How would you improve the Olympic Agenda 2020 in terms of sustainability? What do you think is missing?

  2. Thank you for sharing on a very interesting topic. Your post has shed light on a unique opportunity to unite the world around a shared cause. Much like the most recent Summer Olympics raised awareness around the refugee crisis, by establishing the first-ever Refugee Team, I agree that there is an opportunity for the games to do the same for climate change. To that end, it is definitely a positive step for the Olympics to introduce sustainability into the agenda for the future. Another, more radical solution, is to discontinue the practice of placing all the burden on different host cities each year. I had read a thought-provoking article discussing this, in light of the challenges leading up to the Rio Olympics, that suggested reusing existing facilities (many of which are now operating below capacity or wasted) and spreading the Olympics events across multiple cities. While the article proposed this solution to address the financial burden on host cities, I believe this could also address the issues of ecological limitations and the carbon footprint in any single place. Of course, viewers and aspiring host cities would likely raise many protests from the entertainment perspective, but I wonder: what responsibility does a global event, with such viewership, have to take a leadership stance on this?

  3. John, thanks for your analysis of the IOC’s effort to promote sustainability in a global context. I wonder if the IOC cannot do more to be at the forefront of change? While I agree with you that the global context and popularity of the Olympics make a perfect platform, I think that the Olympics can do even more than that. I like how the previous post spoke about the refugee team and spreading awareness. That is a perfect example of the Olympics as a platform. In what ways do you think the Olympics can be an innovative leader? One thing I thought about was the impact of the host city with new, costly construction on facilities that mostly lay empty after the games. Perhaps the Olympics can team up with other world/regional sporting events (i.e. World Cup) to re-use and recycle these facilities. There are also ongoing efforts to use sustainable transportation for spectators and athletes. I wonder what risks these pose from a safety standpoint at the additional costs of providing specific infrastructure and transportation. Thanks for sharing! Intriguing post.

  4. John – this was an interesting and thought provoking article. I think that you are 100% correct in your analysis of the impacts of climate change on the ability for athletes to train and on the overall operations of the Olympic committee. With that in mind, I do believe that the Olympic Committee can do a lot more to promote sustainable environmental practices. One radical idea would be to not move the Olympics to a new host city every 4 years and pick a permanent location to host the games. You can imagine the massive negative environmental impact associated with building a new athletic park every time a country hosts the games, from infrastructure build, to pollution to outright consumption of resources. While I think that it is admirable that the Olympics has taken steps to educate people about climate change, until they look at their net resource consumption in a serious manner, they will be paying lip-service to climate change just like a number of other organizations.

  5. It is clear to me that some form of collective action is necessary to deal with the major issue of climate change and, indeed, the Olympics could very well represent an ideal platform. Unfortunately, the reality is that the Olympics would be a platform for only 1% (arguably less) of the world’s population. What hinders the development of collective action is that climate change is a problem that is inherently very difficult for human beings (the remaining 99%) to care about due to its intertemporal nature. Dan Ariely, behavioral economist from Duke University and author of the book “Predictably Irrational,” has said that global warming is the quintessential problem for humans not to care about because it has all the elements of human apathy (e.g. it takes place very far into the future, it effects other people first before affecting oneself and anything that an individual done is a drop in the bucket) which combine to make people simply not care. In short, I am optimistic about the Olympics being a viable platform to facilitate the discussion surrounding climate change, but I am less optimistic about its actual ability to create real solutions that would make a significant difference.

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