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In a Time of Climate Change, Boston–and the World–Can’t Afford the Olympics

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s decision last month to make Boston its candidate for the right to host the 2024 Summer Games has generated much excitement within the city and its environs. It has also engendered considerable opposition.

Although Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has pledged to expend no public funds except for upgrading city infrastructure, critics have raised myriad concerns. These include worries about gentrification and displacement, qualms about billions of dollars in “homeland security” spending and the creation of what would effectively be a police state, and fears that efforts to ready Boston will divert energy and resources needed to address long-standing problems in the city.

Yet also vital to scrutinize are the considerable ecological costs the Games will inevitably incur, especially relating to climate change. These costs should lead Boston—and the many other cities around the world seeking to host the 2024 Summer Olympics—to abandon its candidacy. More broadly, these costs should bring an end to international sporting “mega-events.”

Invoking the ties between climate change and the Olympics happens almost exclusively in regards to the Winter Games. The question of adequate cold and snow has become a regular concern for the quadrennial gathering. As the title of a segment on Public Radio International’s “The World” asked in the run-up to the opening of the 2014 Games in Sochi, “Will climate change kill the winter Olympics?”

As is typical, the question ignores the damage done by the Olympics to the climate, but it is well founded nonetheless. Europe has seen half of its alpine glacial ice disappear since the mid-1800s, for example. In the more recent term, the U.S. ski industry has lost an
estimated $1 billion in revenues over the last decade due to low snowfall. An academic study predicts that the trend this embodies will lead half of the 103 ski resorts in the U.S. Northeast to close in the next 30 years.

As for what such developments mean for the Winter Olympics, a study released last January by scientists from Canada’s University of Waterloo looked at the 19 host cities over the last 100 years. Combining climate data with a range of projections, the study found that only 10-11 of the cities would be “climactically reliable” by mid-century to host the Games; that number shrinks to as low as six by 2080.

On this basis, the Waterloo team calls for “striving to host the Olympic Winter Games in harmony with nature” and champions “carbon neutral” gatherings. These are to be accomplished, they suggest, via energy conservation, renewable energy sources, and highly dubious carbon offset credits.

Boston’s organizers will most likely pursue a similar path and promise “green” Games—today’s standard pledge for athletic mega-events with huge environmental footprints. FIFA, for example, vowed that the 2014 World Cup in Brazil would be a “sustainable event”— one which saw one million visitors from abroad and necessitated that Brazilian aviation regulators allow approximately 2,000 additional flight permits. The architects of London 2012 proclaimed it the greenest Olympics in history, a gathering that resulted in the equivalent of 3.3 million metric tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide).

To put such numbers in perspective, a roundtrip flight between New York and Rio de Janeiro generates a warming impact equivalent to 3.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide per passenger—an amount 50 percent larger than what an average denizen of Brazil produces for an entire year. As for the Summer Olympics in London, its carbon footprint exceeded that of Zambia, a country of more than 14 million inhabitants, for all of 2012.

One might contend that in a world which produced 36 billion tons of carbon emissions in 2013, the impact of a sporting event, even one the magnitude of an Olympic Games, is too small to be of concern. However, as Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research states, such thinking can serve as an excuse for inaction. “Divide the world into a sufficient number of small parts,” he writes—say, California, Beijing, or London—and everything fits into the “classification of ‘miniscule’, i.e. so small as to be irrelevant.”

Like the Olympic Games, Boston is a small part of a much larger world. It is also, like countless other places, vulnerable to the ravages of a warming planet. As the city’s official website states, climate-change-induced “sea-level rise, heat waves, and increases in storm intensity or frequency, pose major risks to Boston.” Indeed, climate scientists project that sea levels in the Boston area could rise by as much as 7.5 feet by the end of the century.

NASA’s Jan. 16 verdict that 2014 was the hottest tear on record and publication the previous day of scientific research that finds that humans are “eating away at our own life support systems” serve as dire reminders of the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For these reasons and more, efforts to bring the 2024 Summer Games to Boston—or elsewhere—are a fool’s errand of Olympic proportions.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).  Along with Suren Moodliar, he is working on a book project entitled “A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.”

 

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