Sports Leagues Embrace Progress on Climate Change

Last week, on Thursday, November 21st, senior representatives from four of the most influential professional sports leagues in the United States assembled at a closed door meeting of the Congressional Bicameral Committee on Climate Change. Officials from Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, joined by a representative of the U.S. Olympic Committee, testified that worsening climate change poses risks to the future of their sport. They all described some of their league's many environmental initiatives and, in particular, the work they do that is focused on reducing their contribution to global warming.

While November 21st is now known as an historic day in Congress because of changes made to the Senate filibuster rule, that date now also represents a watershed in our national debate about climate change: On November 21st, 2013, senior representatives from the major professional sports leagues in the United States testified before Congress for the first time about their organizations' belief that climate change is real and, as Kathy Behrens of the NBA stated, "will only worsen if we do not address the air pollutants that are driving it."

It is notable when senior officials from MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, all speak before a Congressional committee about the need to address climate disruption. While climate deniers in Congress and elsewhere might think they can attack the U.S. EPA or the United Nations with impunity, surely they would think twice before trying to impugn the integrity of those who lead the professional sports industry. All of the premier U.S.-based sports organizations are among the most culturally influential and highly regarded businesses in the world, and all of them, even including NASCAR, have now stated publicly that climate disruption is real and that we must act to do something about it.

Congressional testimony about climate change by professional sports leagues is also notable because, as a rule, these leagues do not venture into controversial political issues. Instead, the leagues and teams comprising the professional sports industry tend to limit the use of their visibility to social causes on which there is consensus, such as support for the troops, standing up to fight cancer, and celebrating first responders. Now, in an affirmation that the debate about climate change has shifted dramatically, all professional sports leagues are using their visibility to encourage sports fans and their partner businesses to address the risks posed to our environment by climate disruption and other ecological threats.

While it might be expected for environmental champion and Bicameral Committee Co-Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) to opine at the hearing that climate change "threatens to make pro-sports all but impossible to play," it is less expected to hear that position affirmed by Craig Harnett, the Senior Executive Vice President and CFO of the NHL: "Hockey's relationship to climate is unique." He said. "Our players learn to skate on frozen lakes. For this sport's tradition to continue we need to address the threats of climate change."

For its part, the NHL in 2008 launched a program focused on encouraging teams to incorporate environmental considerations into their team and venue operations, including reducing their use of fossil fuels. Two years ago the league began measuring energy use and carbon emissions at all NHL arenas and it joined the EPA's Energy Star program. In fact, plans are under way to make the NHL the first professional sports league ever to issue an environmental sustainability report, the first time that a professional sports league will document it's league-wide carbon footprint.

According to testimony at the hearing delivered by John McHale, Executive Vice President of Major League Baseball: "Anyone who works at Major League Baseball learns on the first day that baseball takes its social responsibility seriously...Green grass and clean air are essential to our game...[and] addressing climate change helps protect our game for the future. And doing so is [also] being responsive to our fans and our sponsors." Indeed, back in 2006 Major League Baseball joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council to become the first professional sports league to launch a sustainability initiative, including a particular focus on reducing energy costs and its contribution to climate change. MLB also joined with NRDC to pioneer the development of an environmental data gathering system for all pro-baseball stadiums. It is worth noting that over the past six or seven years, MLB teams and venues have put in place initiatives that will collectively reduce the league's carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of pounds.

At the Bicameral Committee hearing the NBA's Executive Vice President, Ms. Kathy Behrens, was unequivocal about her league's commitment to address the risks of climate change: "The NBA believes that we must work together to avoid the potentially catastrophic risks posed by climate change...Climate change matters greatly to the NBA and WNBA." Indeed it does: the NBA is the only professional sports league in the world that dedicates an entire week (each April) to educating all its fans and partners about its commitment to environmental stewardship. The initiative is called Green Week, and it is focused on educating NBA fans and NBA business partners about what they each can do to reduce their impacts. Moreover, the NBA is also working with all of its teams to collect data about energy use and carbon emissions.

The support for policies to address climate change by representatives from the NFL and the USOC made the day's testimony by all panelists about the need to act on climate change unanimous. According to the Adolpho A. Birch III of the NFL: "Sensible environmental policies are not only good for the environment but are good for our business." He went on to describe some of the work the NFL does at each Super Bowl, and at league headquarters, to reduce its carbon emissions through ecologically intelligent business practices. And Desiree Filippone of the USOC was emphatic about her organization's concern about global warming, stating that "We believe very strongly in the need to address this issue."

While not present, Major League Soccer, NASCAR and the U.S. Tennis Association all also have environmental programs in place that focus on addressing climate change, and educating their fans about the need to act. Clearly, addressing climate change and other environmental issues, and publicly discussing this important work, is now an item on the social responsibility agenda of all professional sports organizations.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Senate Co-Chair of the Bicameral Committee, recounted his personal experience "growing up playing hockey on frozen ponds in Rhode Island" and he explained his reasons for inviting professional sports leagues to testify on this issue: "Your leagues are great cultural institutions that embody the American spirit...You are exhibiting clear public leadership by your statements and activities...I believe that sports can help us break through the barrage of special interests fighting action on climate change."

The single most important thing we can do to address the urgent ecological challenges we face is change cultural expectations and attitudes about how we relate to the planet. The motivation for sports to engage in greening is simple. The games we love today were born outdoors, and without clean air to breathe, clean water and a healthy climate, sports would be impossible. Sports, is a powerful social unifier, and it can play an extraordinarily useful role in bringing businesses and people together to address climate change as well as other ecological problems. And it is.

The willingness of professional sports leagues to testify about climate change before a Congressional committee reflects an evolving cultural shift in behalf of ecological stewardship, driven in part by the venue greening happening throughout all professional sports leagues (and at many colleges too). The good news is that most greening initiatives at sports venues realize cost savings, and that is especially true for energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction initiatives. This is good: reducing operating costs helps embed environmental benefits into future operations.

North America's professional leagues, teams and venues have collectively saved millions of dollars by shifting to more efficient, healthy and ecologically intelligent operations. At the same time, the sports greening movement has brought important environmental messages to millions of fans worldwide. As recognized by the Bicameral Committee on Climate Change, sport is a great unifier, transcending political, cultural, religious and socioeconomic barriers. It also wields a uniquely powerful influence, both cultural and economic, that provides much-needed non-political leadership in support of environmental protection. Current and future generations depend on these efforts, and on the prospect that others the world over--especially members of Congress--will notice and emulate the sports industry's inspiring commitment to our environmental cause.