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 slowing warming

An abridged version of this article was published as a guest commentary in the Oakland Tribune on February 28, 2014

Do you like the Winter Olympics? Do you enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, or winter camping? Or do you simply marvel at the beauty of a silent white landscape on a crisp, clear morning?

Snow, of course, is the shared foundation upon which these wonderful things stand. And climate change threatens the future of snow.1

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.2 Instead, the international media focus narrowly on Russia’s massive snowmaking effort, recruitment of the Altai shamans to summon snow, and application of snow stored from last year.

Even Google's doodle showed support for the LGBT community in Sochi, quoting the Olympic Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind..." What if Google took a similar stand on the climate crisis? Source: Google

Even Google’s doodle showed support for the LGBT community in Sochi, quoting the Olympic Charter: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind…” What if Google took a similar stand on the climate crisis? Source: Google

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 of rival world leaders the US and USSR, respectively; from the barring of South Africa in response to apartheid between 1962 and 1992 to Beijing’s emergency measures to quell the noxious air pollution that threatened the 2008 Games; from the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli athletes in 1972 to the unwelcome mat Vladimir Putin has placed before gay athletes and spectators attending Sochi 2014, the Olympics have repeatedly situated 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.

Olympic-sized threat

For the Olympic Winter Games, climate change means fewer potential host cities. A recent study (PDF) from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Centre Innsbruck reports that at Earth’s current rate of warming, just six of the last 19 Winter Olympics sites will be sufficiently cold to stage the Games by the end of this century.

Sochi and the preceding Winter Games’ location, Vancouver, BC, will likely be too warm to host the Olympics by 2050, according to the Canadian-Austrian research.

Keep in mind that today’s greenhouse gas emissions will cause atmospheric warming for decades to come. If international leaders do not act immediately and forcefully to curb carbon pollution, climate change might mean game over for winter sports in much of the world.

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.

The Sochi Games scarcely employ these strategies at all.

Global stage for climate change

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.

Cross-country skier and three-time Olympian Andy Newell, who placed 18th in the Men’s Sprint in Sochi, is trying to gather athletes to call on world leaders to act collaboratively to stop the climate crisis.  Source: FIS

Cross-country skier and three-time Olympian Andy Newell, who placed 18th in the Men’s Sprint in Sochi, is trying to gather athletes to call on world leaders to act collaboratively to stop the climate crisis. Photograph: FIS

US cross-country skier Andy Newell is trying earnestly to form this sort of alliance. He has been rallying his fellow Olympic athletes to sign a letter that pleads heads of state to approve a comprehensive international climate agreement in Paris next year. Two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, just 82 of over 6,000 Olympians had signed the petition.

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, despite uncertainty surrounding the possible repercussions for such demonstrations, provide evidence that the Olympics remain a great stage for social protest.

Newell hints at another possible explanation for snow-seeking athletes’ reluctance to advocate climate solutions: carbon footprint guilt. “We burn a lot of fossil fuels chasing the winter around and trying to go to these competitions,” he admits.

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.

Climate-friendly competition

Second, constructing and staging an ecologically mindful Olympics can create excitement over the potential of clean technology to produce built environments that support massive human activity without the support of fossil fuels.

As we transition to a low-carbon society, our cities change gradually. They steadily expand transit networks; construct climate-friendly public works when infrastructure needs replacing; and promote infill rather than sprawl through urban planning.

These changes take effect over decades. Where energy infrastructure and buildings already exist, it does not make economic or practical sense to destroy everything and replace it with new technology, especially when there is the hope that we can wait a few years and the price of renewable energy facilities and smart grid equipment will fall.

Instead, cities can only continue choosing the cleanest available technology as they replace pieces of our aging, outdated, fossil-powered energy infrastructure.

Obviously, the chance to quickly construct new cities from the ground up does not come along very often. The Games are an occasion to build a metropolis with sporting venues almost from scratch, so why wouldn’t a host nation erect the city of the future, which we know will need to function without polluting the climate?

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 and not embezzlement and kickbacks.

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.3

Simply compensating the huge climate impact of the Olympics with unconvincing carbon-offset measures misses the chance to create a model ‘Green Games’. Attendees would notice ecological venue design or ridgelines covered in wind turbines, but most have no idea that Russia is paying Dow Chemical to install low-carbon technology around the country.

Instead, the world is noticing the environmental destruction and irresponsibility of these Olympics and their enormous preparation effort. Outside magazine’s McKenzie Funk wrote a brilliant critique of the ecologically and socially devastating construction project, and corrupt cronyism, that characterize President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to put on a truly extravagant Winter Games to display the new Russia.

As an Olympic green project, Russia's organizing committee created Ornithological Park in Imeretinskaya lowland. In preparation, large amounts of construction, household, and demolition waste were dumped and buried at the site of the park. Photograph: Dmitry Shevchenko

As an Olympic green project, Russia’s organizing committee created Ornithological Park in Imeretinskaya lowland. In preparation, large amounts of construction, household, and demolition waste were dumped and buried at the site of the park. Photograph: Dmitry Shevchenko

Funk describes the reasons that the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) did not even need to vote to establish their opposition to the planned Olympics: “The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.” The environmental violations, human rights abuses, illegal dumping, Olympic expenses, and ecosystem ruination are chronicled on the blog Sochi Watch.

But this blog post is not about the harm done by Sochi 2014, it’s about how a host nation can design the Olympic Winter Games to move forward on the planetary challenge that jeopardizes the future viability of many of the events showcased.

Some ecological damage is inevitable when preparing a city with a population of about 400,000 to host the world’s biggest winter sports event. The land footprint will expand, construction processes will release tons of greenhouse gases as well as other air and water pollutants. In addition, a lot of emissions come from producing building materials.

But piloting low-emission construction techniques to build a compact city that operates without burning fossil fuels would minimize the Games’ impact while showcasing best practices and fostering confidence about climate neutrality.

I imagine mass transit on rails shuttling people and equipment between Sochi and facilities in 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.

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.

Coming together

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.

  1. Last week, Powder magazine editor Porter Fox published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The End of Snow?” The article mostly discusses the consequences to skiing, but also brings up the dangers our global meltdown poses to freshwater resources, alpine tourism, hydroelectric power, forest habitat, river ecosystems, and even food production. 
  2. Even as this January brought extreme cold and heavy snowfall to North America from the arctic, the ski industry worries that winters are getting too warm. U.S. average winter temperatures have risen 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the last forty years, and the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University reports that snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has declined at the same time, most markedly in the spring. Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Company’s vice president of sustainability, expresses concern that as the globe warms, winters are heating up much faster than summers. In an interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, he laments that climate science is forecasting less and less total snowfall, yet more powerful blizzards, paradoxically. This combination of climate consequences makes it increasingly difficult for ski resorts to break even, much less prosper. If too little snowfall or too fierce storms prevent these operations from opening — and thus they can’t make money — then capital to invest in solutions like snowmaking, renewable energy, and even lobbying for climate policy, becomes scarce. 
  3. The Dow Chemical Company boasts that these Olympics are the first ever to mitigate the Games’ entire carbon footprint before the Opening Ceremony. Dow, through their ‘Sustainable Future’ program, has implemented energy-efficiency and agricultural projects to offset not only the emissions directly associated with the Sochi Olympiad, but also the travel of spectators and media attending the event. But can we really call the Olympics ‘carbon neutral’ just because offsite mitigation efforts will generate estimated emission reductions equal to the estimated emissions caused by the Winter Games? The idea behind carbon offsets is that global warming is a global phenomenon, so the location of emissions is irrelevant. In my opinion, this compartmentalized thinking oversimplifies climate change. Calculating greenhouse gas emissions is extraordinarily complex. The amount of carbon dioxide released during construction and the two-week Games is practically immeasurable because the gas escapes into the atmosphere in so many ways, according to Allen Hershkowitz, PhD., of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Projecting decreases in emissions from Dow’s carbon-abatement projects is even more difficult, in particular because plans are vague and will likely take years to complete. In general, outfitting power plants and factories with energy-efficient equipment often causes their owners to increase production, nullifying some of the projected emissions reductions for which someone may have received credit. And giving farmers low-till technology, advanced “fertilizers” and coaching on “state-of-the-art precision agriculture” hardly guarantees anything about their behavior, which will ultimately determine actual carbon savings. Dow’s other emission-offsetting projects involve retrofitting roads, buildings, and bridges with a super-strong, lightweight material to improve structural integrity. Evidently the emissions saved from decreased maintenance and extended service life for civil infrastructure outweigh the emissions from these construction projects’ diesel machinery and the production of the Carbon Fiber Reinforcement composites to be applied to old structures. Needless to say, skeptical observers often question the legitimacy of ‘third party-verified offset’ claims. 

5 thoughts on “The Olympic Winter Games: Catalyst for Climate Solutions

  1. Bravo – thanks for writing about the issue and keeping it current. We need to keep our teenagers connected to this issue so they can demand change too.


  2. Sam,
    What a great summary of this issue! With all the weather discussions around Sochi, climate change felt a bit like the white elephant in the room! I especially like your “I imagine” section. Also, you are very articulate about carbon offsets. I have always felt a little skeptical about them, without being able to voice why. I would like to see you on our next US Olympic Planning Committee. Thanks for keeping me informed.


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