Environment

Winter Olympics Threatened by Global Warming, but NBC Won't Acknowledge It

Winter sports are taking a huge hit from climate change. Why is NBC mum on the subject?

Photo Credit: kovop58/Shutterstock

Environmental and public health groups are launching a "Twitter storm" on Friday to compel NBC to end its "climate whiteout" and cover the impacts of global warming on the Winter Olympics. So far, the network, which calls itself "the proud home for all U.S. coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang," has failed to address the fact that increased temperatures due to climate change are threatening the future of outdoor winter sports.

"For weeks, NBC has been putting out stories as part of its 'Road to PyeongChang' coverage—featuring profiles on the athletes and stories about their journey to qualifying for Team USA," said Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen's Energy Program, in an email. "Not one has mentioned climate change."

In a statement, the groups—Public Citizen, Protect Our Winters and Climate Nexus—said that they are "organizing a twitterstorm to push NBC to end its #ClimateWhiteout in its coverage of the #Pyeongchang2018 #WinterOlympics. Winter sports are taking a huge hit from our warming planet and the athletes who depend on cold weather and snow—are witnessing and experiencing climate change first hand. We can no longer talk about the Winter Olympics without warming."

They're asking Twitter users to "urge NBC to cover climate change impacts on the athletes and the games," which open Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and run till February 25.

"NBC has hired a record 89 commentators to cover the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and is expecting to fill over 2,400 hours of coverage across its channels," the campaigners said. "How many commentators will ask about the impact of climate change on training and preparing for Olympics competition? Will NBC acknowledge the climate elephant in the room?"

Could NBC's climate silence during the run-up to the Olympics be tied to a larger programming shift? In 2015, of all the major networks, NBC had the most climate change coverage on coverage on evening newscasts and Sunday shows, with 50 minutes, according to Media Matters. But in 2016, the station logged the biggest decrease in climate coverage, dropping to a mere 10 minutes.

And while the Olympics sponsors have dumped some $800 million into NBC's coffers for advertising spots, and some, like Bridgestone and Toyota, have a big part of their fortunes tied to the burning of fossil fuels, none are actually fossil fuel companies, like Exxon Mobil or Chevron, who are for climate activists, Public Enemy No. 1.

The activist campaign to goad NBC into covering the connection between winter sports and global warming comes on the heels of recently updated climate modeling research that looks at the future prospects of past Winter Games host cities—and for both athletes and fans, the future looks bleak. By applying climate-change models to the climate data from previous Winter Olympics locations, the researchers, led by Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that of the 21 Winter Games cities, many may become too warm to host any winter sports.

Nine of the past host cities—Sochi, Russia; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; Vancouver, Canada; Oslo, Norway; Chamonix, France; Innsbruck, Austria; Sarajevo, Yugoslavia; Grenoble, France; and Squaw Valley, U.S.—will likely not be cold enough for skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, bobsleigh or the other outdoor Olympic winter sports.

But it's not just the Winter Olympics that are threatened by a warming world: all outdoor sports and recreation that rely on snow and ice will be impacted. The New York Times reports that some U.S. ski locations could experience season lengths cut in half by 2050. By 2090, the seasons could be cut by up to 80 percent. That's a lot less time on the slopes—and a lot less income for winter sports industries and the states that depend on that economic activity.

"Winter recreational activities are an integral part of the economy in many states—and these communities serve as the pipeline to the Olympics," said the organizers of Friday's Twitter storm campaign. "Data from 2009-10, collected by Protect our Winters and NRDC, show that the ski, snowboard, and snowmobiling industries were directly and indirectly responsible for employing 211,900 people and adding an estimated $12.2 billion in economic value to the U.S. economy. As winter loses its chill, these winter tourism activities will be impacted and with them, people’s livelihoods."

The greenhouse gases humans have emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have increased the Earth's surface temperature by an average of 1°C, on average. But, as the Economist recently reported, "the effect has been greater in the Alps, the mountain range most visited for winter sports, which has warmed by about 2°C."

Even artificial snowmaking won't solve the problem, as the air needs to cold enough to turn the pressurized water into snow. "You’re relying on cold air to do the refrigeration for you," Daniel Scott told the New York Times.

Environmentalists warn that making artificial snow is costly, wastes water and can be environmentally hazardous. Some artificial snow is made from treated wastewater, which can contain pharmaceuticals and other difficult-to-trace contaminants that aren't normally filtered by treatment plants.

"There is an emerging and growing list of compounds [about which] we don't know the effects," Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Outside Magazine. "But we know that endocrine disruptors [in wastewater] will change fish sex ratios. This points to the need for additional research and more advanced water treatment."

When it comes to climate change, "many resorts are closing their eyes to reality,” Carmen de Jong of the University of Strasbourg told the Economist. She proposes a "deceleration" in the winter-sports industry.

Enjoy the Winter Olympics—at least for now. Like the polar bear, manmade climate change is pushing the event toward extinction.

In "The Lost Winter," Vice Sports traveled around the United States with snowboarder Lucas Debari and skier Maddie Bowman to investigate the effect of climate change on winter sports. Watch the video:

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Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch, Truthdig, National Memo, Green America, Regeneration International, Revelist, Resilience and BlackBook, among others. Reynard is also the co-founder of MomenTech, an experimental production studio based in New York and Prague that has presented dozens of projects around the world exploring intersections of culture, history, politics, science and sports. Follow him on Twitter: @reynardloki or email him at [email protected]ind.media.