Climate Action

Can sport and social media help tackle climate change?

Leszek J. Sibilski
Consultant, The World Bank
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The prevalence and use of social media is rising worldwide. Alongside that, there has also been an explosion of sport-related content on social media platforms.  How can these two phenomena be utilized to raise awareness and action on climate change?

“Sport has become a world language, a common denominator that breaks down all the walls, all the barriers. It is a worldwide industry whose practices can have widespread impact. Most of all, it is a powerful tool for progress and for development.” – Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General

In last year’s Tour of Spain cycling race, faced with abnormally high temperatures, riders drank 12 bottles of water a day but still lost up to 4.5 kg in weight. From the melting snow of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, to the stifling heat of the Australian Open Tennis Championships in Melbourne and the US Open Tennis Championships in New York City, climate change has once again proven its relentlessness and lack of forgiveness.

It’s no good denying it – temperatures are going up. According to the World Bank’s “Turn Down the Heat” reports, the planet could warm from its current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emission-reduction pledges. In all likelihood, it will mean more extreme heat waves with health, socio-political, and economic ramifications occurring across the globe.

Federations in charge of sports are noticing and taking action. On November 21, 2013, major professional US sports league executives and the US Olympic Committee, testified before Congress for the first time about the consequences of climate change within the sports community. In February, 2014, as a result of Sochi’s melting aftermath, 105 Winter Olympians lobbied for climate change awareness by signing a petition urging world leaders to address climate change on a global scale.

Perhaps sport is not the most obvious forum for addressing climate change. However, whichever way you look at it, sport is ever-present. It captivates billions and employs millions. According to the World Health Organization, 69% of people over 15 devoted time to physical exercise in 2008. Sport brings people together from all walks of life and all corners of the globe to participate, compete, or spectate. Sport can shape the way people think about the environment. Because it’s so popular in every inhabited continent on Earth, sport has a vital role to play in delivering a powerful eco message. It keeps humans healthy, but it can also keep the planet healthy. To paraphrase the 19th century motto of the YMCA, sport can regenerate the body, mind, spirit, and nature – enhancing the individual and the land in which he or she lives. Many believe sport holds the potential to be the most influential element in the environmental movement; more influential than politics and more influential than business.

The universal power of sport is not only in its popularity, but also the celebrity status of its stars. High profile professional athletes can make great ambassadors and role models by talking about the effects of climate change and creating a debate and motivating people to change their lifestyles to prevent further damage to the environment. Most of all, they can help educate our greatest resource, young people, who are the inheritors of our planet.

Of course, even the most well intended actions of the most famous sporting celebrities might not be enough to reverse the trend of climate change. Which is why we need to call on an amazing new communicational phenomenon – social media.

The metrics of social media usage in sportare mindboggling. For example, take the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the biggest single social media-sporting event ever. An astounding 350 million Facebook users worldwide made 3 billion posts, comments, and likes during the tournament. There were over 600,000 tweets per minute on Twitter during some parts of the final, and over 32 million tweets during the telecast of the match. Then there’s television. Three million tickets were sold for the tournament, but that’s next to nothing compared with the global television audience.  Around 3.6 billion people watched at least one minute of the fifteen day broadcast. So, you could say there were three global arenas at the 2014 FIFA World Cup – besides the stadiums, there was television, and the Internet. Do the math and you can see that there were over 7 billion personal interactions with the tournament in this revolutionary football communication extravaganza.

The incredible social media explosion in Brazil had its roots two years earlier at the Olympic Games. At that time, the International Olympic Committee billed London 2012 as “the first social media Olympic and Paralympic Games.” but its billing fell short by limiting genuine interaction with the athletes and by restricting their messages. Still, it was an impressive debut for social media. For the first time, digital coverage exceeded traditional broadcast coverage with sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ attracting 4.7 million followers. There were 150 million tweets about the Games, more than 960,000 mentions on Twitter about Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and over 830,000 for American swimmer Michael Phelps – superstars clearly get people talking.

Moreover, the appeal of social media is growing by the day. In 2014, there were one billion Facebook users; in 2015 that number reached 1.44 billion. Likewise, Twitter is gaining 255 million users every month! There simply is no better way to talk about global climate change, inspire people to change their habits, and generate action. The opportunity is immense and endless. Take that new phenomenon, the ‘selfie’. Everyone is taking them, from President Obama to tennis star Serena Williams and astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Sport is for all, and social media is for all. They’re natural partners, ready to work together in perfect synergy. In fact, almost half of all tweets are about sport.

Although it is true that sports organizations have not yet managed to harness and measure the power of social media in the same way that they have harnessed the power of TV, the future looks brighter if we can get social media and sport working hand-in-hand to face to climate change. Soaring access to mobile e-devices across the globe, the explosion of tweets and posts, an obsession with selfies – these trends are empowering the world to actively participate and contribute in real time while watching sporting events. Sport offers a powerful platform that can influence the future for generations to come. Through social media, we have digital and networking opportunities that can really make a difference. The PGA European Tour just opened up a dialogue with its fan base via social media. In England, major football stadia such as Liverpool’s Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City, offer Wi-Fi for those who want to use their e-devices for live interactions while watching the game. This year, FC Barcelona became the world’s largest sports club on social media with followers expected to approach 150 million this year.

The latest technological inventions and the subsequent social media explosion have transformed all sports arenas forever. Nowadays, sports enthusiasts can receive real-time updates from their favorite athletes and clubs thanks to outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, instead of waiting for the subscribed sports magazine delivered by mail. Educating the sports community to maximize the potential of social media is critical. By uniting the two, we can provide the force we need to secure the ultimate prize – the health of our planet for our children, their children, and the future generations that follow.

This post first appeared on The World Bank People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Leszek J. Sibilski is a Professor of Sociology and longtime advocate for issues related to climate change, the environment, family, public policy, global poverty, youth, and role of women in contemporary society.

Image: Silhouettes of men holding phones in front of the Twitter symbol. REUTERS.

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