Climate Change Is Creeping Into Sports

As the realities of climate change set in, American sports leagues are bracing for change.

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Dec 18 2014, 3:25pm

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"Congress can learn a lot about climate change from the leagues. They recognize the problem is real, they recognize the threat it poses to their sports, and they are acting to protect the environment." Those are the words of Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California. The leagues he was talking about are the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, and the WNBA, all of which, along with the US Olympic Committee, met with a governmental task force on climate change late last year. The meeting came in the wake of letters sent by the big four leagues to congress which stated that, in short, they all believe climate change is a problem and are working to cut environmental waste.

I suppose there are two ways you could look at this. You could see it as an unfortunate example of sports getting mixed up in politics. Or you could see it as part of the mounting evidence that the only place climate change is a political issue is in Congress. In the world of sports, the topic of climate change is closed for debate. Like the U.S. military and other nonpartisan organizations around the world, the leagues are way past, is this real? They're bracing for change.

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Don't believe me? Consider the NHL's Sustainability Report, published in October. The NHL is basically terrified about the future of backyard hockey, and, by extension, the continued existence of hockey as we know it:

"While one specific weather event isn't necessarily a function of climate change, there is now a documented impact being felt in backyard rinks around the world," writes hall of fame goaltender Mike Richter in the massive document's afterward. "Regardless of whether you are a 15-year-old kid or a 60-year-old hockey veteran releasing your inner teenager on the outdoor ice, we as hockey fans have much at stake."

In a way, it's fitting that sports organizations are out ahead of politicians on the issue of climate change. Athletes, after all, spend a great deal of time outside, but more to the point, sportsmen and women were among the first groups of people seriously inconvenienced by climate change.

In no activity is this truer than in climbing and mountaineering. Consider Switzerland's Mt. Eiger. The north face of Eiger is the biggest in the Alps and one of the world's most iconic climbs. It's also essentially unclimbable in the summer.

"There are lots [of routes] in the Alps that can't be done in the summer anymore," Martin Moran said by phone. A British mountain guide, Moran's 29-year career has taken him around the world, usually to places above the tree line. "When I did [Eiger] in 1981, we did it in the summer. Since the end of the 1980s, it's always done in the winter or spring."

The problem has to do with ice and permafrost, which no longer hold Eiger's rock in place. (Another famous Alpine peak, the Matterhorn, is also disintegrating.) Melting glaciers, which can cleave off unexpectedly, are also a problem. Such a break caused a massive avalanche on Everest earlier this year that killed 16 Sherpas.

"In the short term, people like to have nice, hot, dry holidays in the mountains," said Moran. "But they don't realize in the long term those conditions are destroying the mountains as a playground."

On Sunday, at a UN conference in Lima, Peru, nearly 200 countries agreed to come up with a plan to address climate change. It wasn't what many people had hoped for. USA Today called it a "weak" deal, noting it came "33 hours behind schedule." But it keeps alive the hope that the UN will reach some kind of substantive agreement on climate change and greenhouse gasses at next year's summit in Paris. One wonders if things might have moved a bit quicker had the meeting taken place not in Lima, but higher in the Andes, at an elevation where arguing about climate change isn't possible, because the evidence is there all around.