Sports (Communities) are Under Threat from Climate Change

An exploration of climate justice issues in the spaces and places of sports.

Tackling climate change necessitates solving crises of intergenerational, gender, economic and social justice across all parts of our lives. The scale of this crisis requires expertise and community-building from everyone: scientists, academics, artists, parents, students, teachers, tech experts, and beyond. We see an opportunity in this challenge: a chance for action to occur in places and spaces that have not always explicitly supported climate justice.

There is one arena where it might be less obvious where the climate movement can build bridges: the world of sport. As a large industry, sporting bodies struggle to hold their place up in intersectional feminism partly due to their historic – colonial, or patriarchal focus on narrowly defined “achievement” and “exploration.” This includes the wrongful historical domination of celebrating white male participation and achievements. See this year’s World Athletics, UCI, FINA, and World Rugby bans and restrictions on transgender women’s participation in elite sports for reference.

Despite this, sports, organised or not, bring play, wellness, and social connection to many people. It’s just that the structures sports operate in have excluded people along class, race, and gender lines, and repeatedly involve irresponsible decision-making that harm people and planet. To uncover this, fans and athletes need a cohesive framework of greenwashing and ethics-washing, in combination with an obvious pathway to hold accountability. Looking back to campaigns for justice for fans, such as the Hillsborough disaster, we see immensely powerful state and corporate structures making decisions over athlete and fans’ lives and ability to participate, as well as covering up their unjust decisions through tick-box representation and positive media narratives.

The ugly truth: Sports and “business as usual” under climate crisis  

This summer, we were particularly disappointed to see British Cycling stand behind its decision to accept a sponsored partnership with Shell. This is greenwashing, a narrative Shell is using to broadcast a public image of their “ethical” projects while in 2023, they have made £32.2 billion during a cost-of-living crisis and the hottest year globally in 125,000 years. Shell stated that the partnership was created to support disabled athletes, blatantly ignoring the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on disabled people.

This is why we advocate for a climate justice lens for climate action. We want to be a part of (sporting) communities of inclusion, anti-racism, disability justice and climate action to prevent polluters from using people most impacted by the climate crisis for greenwashing. We oppose the decisions of large sporting bodies to lend ‘social licences’ to partners who extract oil, make participation inaccessible, and use justice issues such as disability to make themselves look responsible on the surface.  This is a repeat of a dark history, creating barriers for fans and athletes to demand justice. As there continues to be no framework for greenwashing and ethical funding, we ask ourselves:  

How can sports be a part of climate justice when athletes are placed into categories of gender binaries, achievement is narrowly defined, and profit must be constantly increased?  

We at least see that change is brewing in the sports world, but it is a frustratingly slow process with a diluted focus on representation over genuine justice for fans and cooperative decision-making involving athletes. We’ve had the pleasure of being involved in Girls on Hills UK  -providing guided trail running in less accessible areas of the UK- and Betty Beta, a women’s climbing group and outdoor climbing resource share. These bring us hope for a more inclusive future in sports, supporting everyone to participate in the wonderful benefits of wellness and community-oriented fun they can bring. However, we don’t have power as individual athletes to influence large decisions by bodies such as British Cycling or the Olympics. We can create social change through representation, but a renewed focus on the resulting climate impacts is needed. We feel that it’s not common for sporting groups, even inclusive ones, to have a well-coordinated approach to tackling justice issues, including bridging between sporting participation and climate justice.

Winter sports might be slightly ahead in this. In 2019, the World Economic Forum concluded that “we can essentially kiss winter sports goodbye in the not-too-distant future. You can basically only have winter sports in high-altitude alpine regions for a… limited period…in the year.” They also stated that passion for winter sports, which also have indigenous histories and practices, might be a powerful space for climate action. Protect Our Winters, a leader in holding the outdoors sports industry accountable to climate action, launched a petition this month demanding the International Ski Federation (FIS) halt its awful excavation and trawling of two glaciers in the Alps to “harvest” snow for the ski racing season. The FIS has yet to comment, despite the damage already done to the glacier. For the sports industry to turn a blind eye and pretend we can recreate with “business as usual” is shameful.

This is a climate justice issue.

The hard truth is that the climate crisis threatens to displace 1.2billion people globally by 2050. This will mean that sporting events and activities that can continue to take place –perhaps moving indoors, training at higher altitudes, and increasing costs to cover energy and infrastructure prices- will become more inaccessible to fans and athletes. This will especially concern casual athletes and players and those who already receive less/no pay along lines of inequality, such as women football players. More destruction of ecosystems in new places, such as glaciers, will occur to build the infrastructure to maintain sports events “as usual” in a rapidly changing climate, and frontline communities with the least access to decision-making power over these events will feel this. Our ability to participate in sports, watch sporting events, and connect with like-minded people through ethical sport is under threat.

Collaborating for change: 

Sports play an important role in community, wellbeing, and relationship-building. Not taking climate action threatens our ability to participate at all in the face of rising climate impacts, especially concerning outdoor sports.   

This is a large-scale opportunity for financial influence. By 2027, the global sports market is expected to be worth more than 623 billion USD.  Athletes hold a lot of influence over fans, so publicly boycotting certain events based on ethics or demand more ethical funding from sponsors can be very influential. Divestment from fossil fuel funding is important too, so that athlete and fan investments are not fuelling climate breakdown. Divestment and boycotts have long been empowering methods of individual action with a history of successful political change. In 2023, Women’s Running launched a petition to remove Dacia’s sponsorship of the UTMB races. People need transport justice to participate in running events, not the purchase of more new cars.  

There is also a great opportunity here for fans and athletes to come together and demand better as a collective. Ultimately, we need to welcome sports fans from all walks of life to the climate movement, and challenge those around us who consider sports “apolitical” like the cricket fans who attacked Just Stop Oil protestors this year. We also need a framework for greenwashing, with transparency from large bodies of who their funding partners are and why. With credit to Indigenous sporting models, sports need to focus on community spaces, with full fan participation in decision-making and athletes sharing their positive influence. A recent episode of the Outrage + Optimism podcast shared a sailing event called the Impact League, where “winners” are determined by their contribution to climate action over stand-alone speed.

As we face worry and grief over climate crisis, expanding participation for collective well-being from sports participation-without this being used to “greenwash”– is critical. 

Everyone deserves to do what they love and be well while we tackle the climate crisis.  

Sophia & Ailsa, Environment writers.