IN TWO WEEKS, U.S. cross country skier Andy Newell will travel to Sochi, Russia to compete in the Winter Olympics. And though his aim is clear — to stand atop the podium — he’s traveling to the Games with more than precious metal on his mind.
For the past two months, Newell, 30, has quietly appealed to his fellow Olympians to leverage the Sochi Games as an opportunity to speak to world leaders about the ravages of global climate change on the winter snowpack. The petition he’s been circulating, OlympicAthletes for Action Against Climate Change, makes the case to his fellow competitors in four paragraphs:
Winter is in jeopardy. Inconsistent weather patterns caused by a changing climate are causing destruction around the world, and the economic impact is being felt in both large cities and small mountain communities.
As winter Olympic athletes, our lives revolve around the winter and if climate change continues at this pace, the economies of the small towns where we live and train will be ruined, our sports will be forever changed and the winter Olympics as we know it will be a thing of the past.
The power we have as Olympians on a global stage is immense. Let’s use this year to make a collective statement, to send a message to the world’s leaders to recognize the impact of climate change and to take action now.
Please join us by signing this letter.
That letter, addressed to the world’s leaders from the petition’s signatories, is comprised of a simple sentence containing a powerful ask:
“…to recognize climate change by reducing emissions, embracing clean energy and preparing for a commitment to a global agreement in Paris in 2015.”
The call to action refers to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, schedule for November 30 – December 11, 2015.
Newell has thus far been joined by 82 athletes, primarily from the U.S. and Canadian squads, and just a few from outside North America. He hopes to have 100 signatures before the Games begin in two weeks, but concedes that getting athletes to step up and sign has proved tougher sledding than he thought.
“It’s a tricky situation. Not only because it’s hard to get the word out there to people in different countries, but a lot of athletes are reluctant to sign things in general in an Olympic year. They don’t want to cause a controversy. They don’t want to use the Olympics as a platform for protest either, necessarily.”
Newell, who counts 350.org founder, author and environmental advocate Bill McKibben as one of his heroes and mentors, concedes that the life of an average Olympian, with its requisite air travel, isn’t exactly easy on the planet.
“We burn a lot of fossil fuels chasing the winter around and trying to go to these competitions. I think a lot of us feel bad about that. But that’s our job and our livelihood and our passion. But at the same time, we try to use that – the professional athlete as a platform — to try to raise the awareness of people that may not understand what’s going on out in the environment.”
“I didn’t necessarily want to use the Olympics as a platform for a protest, necessarily,” Newell says. “But I wanted to at least try to get a lot of athletes on board to sign this letter and basically get it to their heads of state, to say, you know, we’re Olympic athletes and we can’t continue to support ourselves and this kind of livelihood if our winters keep disappearing, and we want you guys to recognize that there is some climate change happening.”
The U.S. cross country team’s winningest athlete and gold medal favorite, Kikkan Randall, has signed the petition.
“I grew up in a family that was very respectful of the opportunities that we had to be out in the environment, and to try to do our part, the best we could, to contribute to the health of the environment,” says Randall. “And certainly being involved in a sport that does rely on the weather and the fact that climate change could effect our sport…I think athletes, doing what we do, we have a great platform to go and encourage others…to do their part.”
Protect Our Winters (POW), a California-based non-profit whose athlete-advocates get the word out about climate change, has stepped forward to boost international attention to Newell’s petition. Chris Steinkamp, POW’s executive director, says that Sochi is an ideal backdrop for an athlete alliance to speak out about climate change.
“The Olympics is the perfect stage for something like this. Obviously, it has a history of social issues. But I think this is the first time that climate change has come up, and it’s because obviously climate change is a hot issue right now. Sochi is one of those places where it could be a real issue in the next couple of weeks, and the conditions and the weather might be really inconsistent. So it’s a perfect storm for this issue to be recognized.”
Or maybe an imperfect storm, climatically speaking. Steinkamp says that although climate change is well documented by the science, global leaders have not yet taken the necessary actions to curb its progress, and the time to act is now.
“Every year we all go into these climate conferences, these international global discussions about climate change with high hopes that something is going to be done, and nothing ever really does get done. So the goal of the letter is two-fold: To really let world leaders know that something needs to be done, but also let them know that something needs to be done in Paris in 2015.”
Whether international decision makers heed Newell’s call remains to be seen. Steinkamp views the alliance itself, the first of its kind, as a significant flag in the snow.
“The cool thing is that you’ve got these Olympians that are standing up for climate change, and with this platform that they have in Sochi, [they have] the opportunity to speak their mind. Because the only way that the world leaders are going to listen is if the population lets them know about it.”
According to CNN, over 6,000 Olympians and Paralympians will compete in Sochi. Newell has just 82 with two weeks to go.
The practical realties of social change suggest that as more athletes sign the petition, the safer it becomes for those sitting on the fence to participate. This author of Sustainable Play has created his own petition, encouraging the readership of this site to ask the remaining 5,900 to take an Olympic-sized stand for this Olympic-sized issue. Reassure them that climate change transcends mere politics; it’s a phenomenon without borders.