How can sport address climate justice?

February 22 2024

The environmental impacts of the climate crisis on sport are clear for everyone to see, from the droughts and floods cancelling major tournaments to the dwindling snow threatening winter sports. But climate change is a complex problem that also intersects with inequalities across the world.

How can sport address climate justice?

‘Climate justice’ is a way of understanding how the climate crisis is connected to social and economic problems, and in recent years more and more people across the industry have been calling for sport to take climate justice into account.

So what is climate justice – and what does it mean for sport?

What is climate justice?

Climate justice refers to the idea that the climate crisis is inextricably linked to social inequalities, including racial, economic, and social injustices.

This includes both the causes and the consequences of climate change. For example, wealthier, more developed countries are far more responsible for the vast levels of CO2 emissions that have caused global heating, but disadvantaged communities are far more likely to feel the effects of rising temperatures.

Meanwhile, climate change is also a ‘threat multiplier’: the impacts of climate change can worsen existing inequalities, including gender, health, and race.

Taking a climate justice perspective means acknowledging these inequalities, and addressing and reducing them in climate action.

Climate justice and sport

But what exactly does this mean for sport?

First, climate justice means acknowledging and addressing inequalities that exist in sport and physical activity. This includes things like health inequalities and the reduced opportunities to participate in sport among certain social and economic groups.

Secondly, climate justice also means using sport as a tool to address some of these issues, particularly when we’re talking about the climate crisis. This can mean making sure that sustainability and climate justice plans are inclusive, or that sports organisations are addressing issues like racial and social injustice.

Climate justice can be a complex topic that’s difficult to define, and in recent years many in the industry have begun to raise awareness of the issue and how important it is for wider sustainability efforts.

In 2021, Irish football team Bohemian FC appointed Seán McCabe as its Climate Justice Officer, which made headlines as a world football first.

Last August, sustainability consultancy Useful Projects ran an online panel discussion on climate justice in the sport and physical activity sector, featuring speakers from Active Humber and Sport England, as well as arts and environment charity Julie’s Bicycle. 

“I think we need much greater awareness and understanding of what climate justice is and how the sector can help address it,” Jo Dobson, Associate Director of Useful Projects, tells Global Sustainable Sport. “I think it’s an unfamiliar term for everyday people who aren’t sustainability specialists.”

As the general understanding of sustainability and the climate crisis grows, more and more sports organisations are trying to understand what climate justice means for them. So what are some of the most important issues that sport needs to consider?

Inequalities in sport

One major climate justice issue in sport is the fact that disadvantaged communities will be most impacted by the effects of climate change, like flooding, droughts, and air pollution. These are often the same communities who face barriers to accessing sport.

“There is strong overlap between people who will be most adversely impacted by the effects of climate change and those who face the greatest barriers to participation in sport and physical activity in the UK,” says Dobson.

If sport does not address this, existing inequalities will increase.

Last year, the Carbon Disclosure Project found that, in the UK, low-income households, the elderly, those with vulnerable health, children, and minority communities are the groups already most affected by climate hazards, which include extreme heat, flooding, and heavy rainfall.

At the same time, research by Sport England has found that people in lower socio-economic groups already have reduced access to sport and physical activity, while the Race Equality Foundation has highlighted that black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities also face barriers in access and participation. Gender, class, age and disability can also influence how and whether people can access sport and physical activity.

One big issue is access to green spaces where sport often takes place.

Parks and green spaces offer a place for people to play team sports, like football or cricket, or take part in individual sports, like jogging or outdoor fitness classes. However, research has found that disabled people, those from low-income areas, and BAME communities are missing out more than others on access to these spaces.

This is because there are fewer safe, accessible parks and green spaces in disadvantaged areas, while people may feel unwelcome in spaces that do exist.

Access to green spaces was a key area highlighted by Useful Projects’ panel discussion last year.

“One of the key areas of focus should be urban green spaces,” says Dobson. “Planning and designing these spaces to meet multiple social and environmental objectives is a key opportunity.”

Extreme weather caused by the climate crisis also impacts access to sport.

While elite athletes facing heatstroke often make the headlines, young athletes and grassroots sports are also hugely affected, and this is exacerbated by socioeconomic factors like income and race.

The Centre for Sport and Human Rights has argued that ‘lower-income households and minorities are most likely to see their ability to participate in sport curtailed’ by events like extreme heat, storms, and air pollution.

All of this means that those who already faced reduced opportunities to participate in sport will see their opportunities squeezed even further, widening the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged communities.

Using sport to promote justice

Another way that sport and climate justice connect is through the power of sport to raise awareness and promote social change.

The Centre for Sport and Human Rights has argued that sport is uniquely placed to bridge government policy, industry, and communities, and to mobilise fans to take climate action.

As Global Sustainable Sport has reported, there are already many examples of sport using its platform to drive awareness of the climate crisis and environmental issues, from the recent Green Football Weekend to initiatives to reduce high-impact fan travel, raise awareness of the benefits of greener diets, and improve literacy on carbon emissions.

Sport is also used as a tool to address inequalities, from national and international governing body initiatives addressing issues including racial inequality, homophobia, and sexism to charities and community initiatives like Neurodiverse Sport or Black Girls Do Run.

“We know that the sports sector has tremendous power to inspire and influence social change,” says Dobson.  “Leadership by big sports organisations for some of these big climate issues should have a fantastic ripple effect.”

Incorporating a climate justice perspective will mean continuing to use sport as a tool to reduce these inequalities, both within and outside of the sector.

Community and inclusivity in climate action

Climate justice also means listening to affected communities. Importantly, this also means making sure that all voices are heard when organisations, clubs and venues are developing their sustainability initiatives.

When Bohemian FC, who appointed the world’s first Climate Justice Officer three years ago, launched their latest Community Strategy last year, it emphasised listening to the local community and promoting local climate solutions.

At the launch, Climate Justice Officer Seán McCabe said that “we need to find ways to ensure the wider community is included in the climate transition”, arguing that sport can use fans’ trust and sense of belonging “to build collective solutions that help to tackle inequality as well as the climate crisis”.

In practice, this could mean venues and clubs making sure that local communities have access to green spaces, or offering programmes to improve local employment or boost the local economy. It could also mean involving fans and communities in decision-making.

Critically, climate justice can only be achieved if the environmental and social sides of sustainability are considered together.

“All too often, the social and environmental agendas are addressed separately – by different strategies and different teams within an organisation,” says Dobson. “I think having an integrated approach is key.”

This means that solutions to problems take diverse needs into account. For example, an initiative to reduce high-impact fan travel by improving access to public transport would also need to meet the needs of disabled fans.

Climate justice can be a difficult topic to define, but as awareness of sustainability grows, the industry is beginning to understand the many connections between the climate crisis, social injustices, and sport.

As we move forward, paying attention to inequalities, making sure sustainability strategies address them, and connecting with communities will be key.

The challenge ahead is huge – but climate justice can make sure that the greener future is fairer, both within sport and beyond.

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