When cricket and climate collide

Australia’s cricketers hope bushfire smoke will not impact on the Test with New Zealand at the SCG.

Another decade dawns and sport is as entwined with Australian culture as ever.  It is doubtful that Prime Minister Scott Morrison would have promoted any other form of culture when prescribing “a great summer of cricket” as a psychological antidote to fighting bushfires.

Morrison’s glib tweet about “our firefighters and fire-impacted communities” being given “something to cheer about” might have raised hackles, but it highlighted sport’s go-to, rhetorical role in symbolising the nation and its collective spirit.

No matter that, despite Cricket Australia’s claims, participation in the sport is actually declining.  Nor that the national men’s game is still recovering from the international shame of the Sandpapergate scandal bemoaned by Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

But Australian cricket’s most pressing problem is environmental.  It is a game played in the open air for long periods, and this cricket season is being overshadowed, sometimes literally, by a long, dangerous fire season.

The Prime Ministerial celebration of cricket was unwise given that it also draws attention to widespread condemnation of the Liberal National government’s response to climate change.

As images of a Sydney Thunder-Adelaide Strikers Big Bash Twenty20 game in Canberra being abandoned because of bushfire smoke circulated around the world, Australia was being criticised domestically and internationally for the inadequacy of its climate change policies.

Collisions of cricket and climate keep growing in number and scale.  During the first test match in the men’s series against New Zealand in Perth, a nearby scrub fire was seen by spectators and cameras alike.  The increasingly vexed issue of player heat stress was evident.

There are news reports of cricketers in respiratory distress, and questions about the ethics of demanding that they play for up to six hours a day in hazardous air conditions.  New smoke stops play policies will be in operation mirroring those devised for rain interruptions – which would be perversely welcome in present circumstances.

There is also an increased chance of cricket games in regional areas being threatened by fire, as an award-winning picturefrom the Hunter Valley from 2002 dramatically demonstrated.  New Monash University research commissioned by The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) suggests that it may be necessary to reschedule major sport events during the Australian summer, including the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and the New Year Test in Sydney.

Given these urgent environmental matters in the midst of a terrible drought, it is ironic to recall that, in late 2018, one of 11 Australian Research Council Discovery grant applications recommended by expert peers, but secretively struck down by then Education Minister Simon Birmingham, was entitled Greening Media Sport: The Communication of Environmental Issues and Sustainability in Professional Sport.

When asked, belatedly, to explain the decision to veto this and other research projects, the Minister stated that it was a matter of “being entirely the wrong priorities”.

After re-submission with some minor tweaking and a title less likely to attract the censor’s eye, Sport as a Communications Platform for Environmental Issues, this research project was successful in the 2020 ARC grant round.

Presumably, the succeeding Education Minister, Dan Tehan, agrees with the researchers that sport and media’s environmental impact, both actually negative and potentially positive, is indeed a priority matter.

The 17 signatories to the 2018 United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action Framework unequivocally think so.  Among them are the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), National Basketball Association (NBA), World Surf League, and the Rugby League World Cup 2021.

In the interest of full disclosure, I provided advice on the ARC project when it was in development, but I was not an applicant.  Raising it here is not an exercise in score settling, but to emphasise how cricket’s environmental problems in Australia and around the world can help reinforce the vital importance of these issues for other sports and the societies that sustain them.

Many sports lovers do not to think too deeply about the actual environmental costs of their favourite pastime.  These range from media energy use to travel-related carbon emissions to unrecyclable waste.  Greenwashing sport by the corporate public relations apparatus of many major sports organisations generates misleading environmental alibis.

Sport makes much of its outdoor, healthy image and for many people, including me, a great deal of enjoyment has been derived from the sensory pleasure of playing and the sociable fun of watching it in the stadium (violence and bigotry excepted) and on screen (airheaded commentary excepted).

It is increasingly difficult, though, to look away when sport is demonstrably implicated in anthropogenic climate change.  But sport can also help to counteract it, both by example and by strategic use of its intimate connection to the media in communicating new ways of addressing profound environmental issues.

Such a publicly proactive approach to planetary health by cricket and other sports would certainly provide something to cheer for, both on and off the pitch.


Previously published by On Line Opinion December 31, 2019, and licensed under a Creative Commons License (some rights reserved).


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