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World Football In An Era Of Climate Change

The recent match cancellations are just a preview of what is to come as the world rapidly warms due to man made carbon emissions.

Liverpool v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

As I sit here typing this in Jutland, Denmark in mid-February, the weather outside is once again bleak. It’s dour and grey. And the forecast is for wind and rain. It’s not particularly cold, mind you. It hasn’t been all winter. In fact, it hasn’t snowed once. We’re not Norway or Sweden, but this is still Scandinavia.

Of course, this isn’t just a Danish phenomenon. In fact—aside from warmer temperatures and more precipitation—the Nordics won’t suffer nearly as much as other regions. Indeed, the perversity of climate change is such that the wealthiest countries—and those who contributed the most to the problem—will suffer the least.

Globally, January 2020 was the warmest on record. The 2010s were the hottest decade. The 2000s were the second. The 1990s were the third. With warmer temperatures comes more extreme weather events. None of this is news.

Climate change isn’t just about the science. Nor just about the politics. Nor just about economics. It also impacts culture. Certain traditions must be postponed, or canceled altogether, when the weather—which used to be more reliable when the climate was cooler—no longer cooperates.

This was the case last weekend when the Premier League postponed all but one fixture because of Storm Ciara. It might again be the case today as Storm Dennis descends on Britain.

Any one storm system can be a one-off anomaly. Storms existed pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-pumping ancient and sequestered fossil fuels back into the atmosphere. But the increased severity and regularity of storms and other extreme weather events makes it much harder to plan around or to deal with. Powerful storms on back-to-back weekends? This speaks more to a “new normal” than “extreme weather.”

In a microcosm of the wider economic pressures faced in dealing with climate change, football’s insatiable greed is partly to blame. FIFA wants more games and bigger tournaments. UEFA wants more games, bigger tournaments, and more tournaments. Within England, the FA, EFL, and Premier League constantly do battle to maximize the number of competitive matches.

With more matches, comes more travel. Not just for the players, but the fans. And with the increased availability of low-cost, no-frills airlines, the carbon footprint of a single European away is massive.

When Liverpool won its first European Cup in 1977, there were 32 teams competing for the honor, same as today. Unlike today, each round was a home-and-away fixture. This fact alone increases the number of games played by 4 for each team involved.

When Denmark won the Euros in 1992, they were 1 of 8 teams. This year’s rendition, planned to occur not in one host country, but spread throughout the continent, will feature 24 teams.

When the US last hosted a World Cup in 1994, there were 24 teams. Now there are 32. When the US—along with Mexico and Canada!—host the 2026 World Cup, the field will be expanded to 48 teams! Because apparently travel within one massive country isn’t enough!

In each of the above cases, there are more teams, larger distances to travel, and a much larger carbon footprint.

Rival fans mocked Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp for “making excuses” after a disappointing result on a particularly windy day. They weren’t laughing when the matches were called off last week because of a particularly windy day.

There appears to be a baseline understanding that extreme weather is both unsafe, and non-conducive to high quality football. Additionally, there seems to be a growing sentiment that too many fixtures is also unsafe and non-conducive to high quality football (yet another thing Klopp was right about after initial ridicule).

Football’s governing bodies are digging their own graves with their unending greed. They are lowering the on-the-pitch quality, making matches unsafe for spectators and players, and exacerbating the problem of climate change, which in turn will only exacerbate the problems of quality and safety. It is a vicious cycle, and one that needs to be addressed.

Compared to the overall carbon footprint of the global economy, football is admittedly small potatoes. But like with the overall problem of climate change, we need to start making small sacrifices or else the changing climate will force us to make much larger and unexpected ones.

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