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The Olympic Winter Games: Catalyst for Climate Solutions
The snow-challenged Sochi Olympics contribute to climate change rather than work to fix it, but the Games should be a force for reducing emissions and slowing global warming
As sports commentators and news reporters from all over the world endlessly discuss Sochi's not-so-cold weather and Olympian efforts to improve snow conditions, they often fail to mention that balmy winters may become the new normal in many long-established ski destinations, thanks to our changing global climate.
By tradition, the Olympic Games bring global issues to center stage, concerns that often have little to do with the athletic events themselves. From the 1968 Black Power salute of medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City to the 1980 and 1984 boycotts by the US and the USSR, respectively, the Olympics have repeatedly placed the world's most pressing concerns and crises in front of a world audience.
The time for acting to avoid climate catastrophe is melting away as fast as the snow and ice. The Olympic Winter Games, a wonderful world celebration of the enjoyment we all experience in snowy landscapes, is the perfect catalyst to provoke passion around climate change.
The Olympics can generate momentum for climate solutions in three ways: (1) by focusing international attention on the impacts of reduced snowpack and glacial melt on winter sports; (2) by constructing state-of-the-art, climate-neutral facilities, transportation networks, and even entire cities; and (3) by uniting the disparate states of the world to confront one issue that affects us all: global warming.
First, the Olympic Winter Games provide a quadrennial opportunity to bring the effects of climate change to the world's attention while all eyes are affixed to cold-weather sport. Athletes from across the globe should come together to pressure world leaders to develop a strategy for climate action.
Many competitors are hesitant to stir up controversy around the Olympics. But athletes determined to stand up against Russian laws that discriminate based on sexual identity provide evidence that the Games remain a great stage for social protest.
Also, Winter Olympians may shy from taking a stand on climate because of the large carbon footprints they leave behind chasing cold weather around the globe. Nobody wants to be called a hypocrite, but Olympic athletes have the perfect platform from which to raise awareness and foment support – and the audience for winter sports is this big only once every four years.
Second, constructing and staging an ecologically mindful Olympics can generate excitement over the potential of clean technology to produce built environments that support massive human activity without the support of fossil fuels.
Olympic construction provides the opportunity to make a statement: "This is the state of low-carbon technology in 2014." We might discover that we are already capable of creating climate-neutral urban environments with a $50 billion budget like that of the Sochi Olympics – especially if the money goes entirely to Olympic preparations rather than embezzlement and kickbacks.
I imagine mass transit on rails shuttling people and equipment between Sochi and the Caucasus Mountains rather than crowded superhighways connecting city to slopes. I imagine wind turbines extending upward from chairlift towers; passively designed houses and arenas that maintain room temperature with minimal energy consumption; waste-to-energy facilities that supply the grid with electric power and produce liquid biofuels for Zambonis and snow groomers; and solar water heaters, rainwater catchments, and carbon-sequestering gardens on every roof.
Rather than greening the Games, the Dow Chemical Company, Official Carbon Partner of Sochi 2014, will allegedly offset the climate impact of this year's Olympics through emission reductions across Russia. In fact, they've already taken credit for climate neutrality.
If an Olympic host creates zero-emission structures and infrastructure while performing onsite mitigation projects to counterbalance air travel and construction emissions that cannot be avoided, then the entire host city will be greened, literally with carbon-absorbing vegetation and in terms of sustainability.
Lastly, the Olympic Games are special because the nations of the world assemble to celebrate something we all have in common: sport.
The reality of our changing climate is another experience that the whole world shares; around the world, people face many symptoms of the same disease – rising seas, shifting weather patterns, species dislocation, intensified storms, and threatened winter sports.
Let’s hope this is the last Winter Olympic Games to ignore the opportunity to place the threat of climate change on the world stage.