April 27, 2019

What is the NFL getting Right that the Climate Movement is Missing?


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I just spent the past week at a national climate change conference, geeking out with almost a thousand government and civic leaders doing what little they can to fight climate change in the absence of administration leadership (no, the irony is not lost on me that the majority of us flew to the conference; at least they offset our travel emissions).

In the airport on the way home, the TV monitor at my gate was broadcasting the NFL draft.

This is probably going to piss people off. Still, it has to be said:

The NFL draft is bizarre. It’s just freaking weird.

Not being a football fanatic, this isn’t something I even knew existed. An estimated 300,000 people are dedicating their entire weekend, sardined in the streets in Nashville, to the sole purpose of watching the draft. The whole thing is televised (apparently there is a special cable TV channel just to stream it live), Dolly Parton is voicing commercials, and there is an entire staff of people who spend their careers just working on draft picks.

The environmental impact of 300,000 people showing up for a weekend of partying in Nashville has to be enormous.

They aren’t watching an actual football game, cheering on their team, or celebrating a holiday. They are staring at a screen of coaches and team owners horse trading and betting multimillions on the potential of a handful of talented athletes.

To be clear, I am not anti-football. But what I don’t understand is how hundreds of thousands of Americans can care so deeply to travel to Nashville for an entire weekend to see who gets picked for what team, but we can’t seem to collectively motivate hundreds of thousands, or even simply thousands, of Americans to care regularly about the pending devastation of life as we know it.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully recognize the life-changing opportunities for these athletes and their entire families in getting a shot to play for the NFL. What I am struggling with is literally auctioning off human beings like chattel and how one man’s value can somehow be worth more than five others, depending on what the teams want, while the life system of our planet spirals toward non-functional for human existence.

The NFL netted $15 billion in revenue in 2018. I can’t help but wonder how $15 billion per year could be used to drastically improve the state of the world. What would be the impact of 300,000 people putting forth that much energy one weekend a year (or even better, sustained behavior changes, thought processes, and actions) toward deliberate action on addressing the climate crisis?

From the business perspective, the NFL has far-reaching fiscal implications, though I can’t ignore the nagging discomfort of trading people like slaves based on their ability to make the league the most money. The economic benefit of the NFL draft to Nashville is huge—with a conservative estimate of $300 per day on food, hotels, drinks, and souvenirs, that’s $270,000,000 into the Nashville community over a single weekend.

From a moral perspective, how can the environmental community generate that kind of momentum for action on climate change? What are we missing that the NFL is getting right?

Just a week ago, the world celebrated the 49th Earth Day: a single day each year when normal, everyday citizens put on their environmental activist hats and post on social media about all the amazing things they are doing to save the planet. And yet, somehow, on April 23rd, we all go back to “life as usual” until the next Earth Day.

The kids get it; they are taking to the streets for a different purpose—hundreds of thousands of young people, not yet old enough to vote, skipping school and demanding action from their political leaders on climate change.

I’m sure some of them care about football. But instead of people betting millions on them, they are getting death threats and being attacked on social media for everything from their truancy to their “arrogance” to their mental health.

We have to do better. How is it okay to attack a 16-year-old kid with autism for taking a stand to demand politicians listen to their constituents? She has inspired a movement and was rightfully nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; it remains to be seen if this movement will be a force powerful enough to motivate global action at the scale needed.

Right now, I’m somewhere over South Dakota, witnessing a stunning sunset and spewing carbon emissions via my air travel home from a climate change conference. And I’m at a loss as to how we can collectively generate this level of interest, commitment, and passion for making the world a better place, like the NFL has with football.

Hopefully for some of those hundreds of thousands of people watching the draft this weekend, the threat of climate change is real and understood, and they will return home after the draft and speak up for action on climate change.

This is my question to you: Where do we go from here? How do we take the phenomenal success of an organization like the NFL and apply it to the climate movement?

None of us can do this alone, and we are running out of time. We need bold, feasible, tangible solutions.

Please, I implore you: share your thoughts and ideas below. How can we infuse passion for our current way of life, including enjoying sports, into the climate change movement? How can we shift the conversation from what we would have to give up to what we could be gaining?

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