Warming Up: How Climate Change Is Changing Sport

  • By Madeleine Orr
  • Bloomsbury Sigma
  • 320 pp.

Can athletics defeat global warming? Let’s cheer it on.

Warming Up: How Climate Change Is Changing Sport

Warming Up is an interesting new addition to today’s climate-change literature. In it, British author and founder of the Sport Ecology Group Madeleine Orr delves into how our overheating planet is affecting the wide world of sports, covering everything from how dangerous rising temperatures are making the thrill of victory to how death is now part of the agony of defeat.

Though she admittedly and obviously isn’t a sports fan — a fact that can sometimes distract readers who are — Orr provides a valuable public service here. While she dedicates too many pages to making the case that climate change is a crisis (anyone who still needs convincing isn’t going to suddenly get a clue from this or any other book), she nails both big-picture, pro-planet-protection trends and micro-level prescriptive change for how local communities and teams can attempt to tackle the massive health risks athletes face in a heating climate:

“From the beaches of California to the islands of the South Pacific, from the Alps to the Horn of Africa, climate change is threatening sport in every corner of the world. The realities of climate change are now undeniable and likely to worsen. And sports — especially outdoor sports — are on the frontlines; athletes are outside day in and day out, witnessing these changes. They’re seeing climate change in real time, and it’s taking a toll on everything from scheduling to on-field performance, from mental health to the financial bottom line. The question isn’t whether climate change will impact sports. It already is. The question is: how fast can the sports world adapt?”

Parents of athletes should take note of her detailed calls for action to prevent more young people from dying of heat-related problems. Sadly, there’s still too much machismo in the athletic departments at colleges and high schools and in youth football. Orr’s documentation of how hard it is to get sports organizations to adopt commonsense policies is enough to make readers want to bang their heads against a wall. (Her account of Paradise High School football coach Rick Prinz texting his team that practice would go on despite California wildfires raging nearby is nothing short of sickening.)

Professional sports leagues are often no better, she reveals, because they frequently resist making even simple schedule changes. Why? They might lose a few bucks in revenue. On the plus side, she notes that entities ranging from the Australian Open tennis tournament to the National Rugby League are at least making some strides in protecting the athletes who generate that revenue. Many are also getting serious about protecting the planet.

Orr rightfully devotes much of her book to the life-and-death consequences of climate change, but she also takes readers on trips down memory lane. The loss of traditions doesn’t matter as much as lost lives, but it still hurts. Colin Wilson, a third-generation National Hockey League player who spent 11 seasons in the NHL, laments that kids today don’t get to play hockey on outdoor ice because there isn’t any.

“Ya, I worry about it,” he said. “As a kid, it’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to be on the ice. Now, when I go outside in New Jersey and it’s dark and cold, it feels like home. But it’s sad not to see the outdoor rinks. It just doesn’t get cold enough here.”

Orr doesn’t apply Wilson’s sentiments to America’s number-one sport, football, but ask NFL fans about their favorite memories growing up, and they’ll inevitably recall going to games in the snow or watching them on TV. There’s just nothing better than watching football on single-digit days, but snow games are now all but an endangered species. The same may become true for events in the Winter Olympics — and sooner than we think.

Something else we’re losing? Livelihoods based on winter sports. Climate change is wreaking havoc on ski communities across the globe. For the mom-and-pop businesses (and the people they employ) in once-reliably-frigid locales, the pain hits their pocketbooks hard.

Anyone who writes or reads about climate change knows that finding signs of hope is a Herculean task. Orr begins part of her search by noting that “no other industry captures the public imagination like sport.” She then points to a 2020 survey of European soccer fans by the LifeTACKLE project. It found that 90 percent of them agree or strongly agree “with the importance of protecting the environment and natural resources, preventing pollution, respecting the Earth and living in harmony with other species, and fighting climate change.”

That’s lovely, but — editorial comment here — sports fans in America rarely lift a finger in the name of moral action. There appears to be no murderer/wife-beater/child-abuser/but-still-a-star-athlete we won’t support. We can’t even manage to boycott a single game in order to hold players, teams, or leagues accountable for anything.

Perhaps this reviewer is too cynical about humankind’s willingness to make the sacrifices needed to slow or halt climate change. And yet, Orr’s chapter “Green Sports,” among others, documents significant actions the sports world is taking. To cite one example, kudos to the Waste Management Phoenix Open (golf) for running what is often called the largest zero-waste athletic event in the world. The tournament recycles, repurposes, composts, and conserves, keeping massive amounts of material out of landfills.

Climate-change resilience? That’s a team worth rooting for.

Christopher Lancette is a Silver Spring, Maryland, freelance writer focusing on nature and the environment. Read more of his work and find his social-media links here.

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