When it comes to the recent 2010 Winter Olympics, the United States and Canada have much to be proud of. Each ranked first in a medal category with Canada winning 14 gold medals and the U.S. securing 15 silver medals. This is an impressive but unsurprising performance for two of the top three economies in the Western Hemisphere. (Snowless Brazil won no medals.) Less impressive is that the U.S. and Canada are peak performers in the category of climate change causation. These two have done little to reduce their high scores in per capita emissions. Both rank in the world’s top 10 emitters at nearly 20 tons per person per year. Compare this with China’s 4 tons per person and India’s 1 ton per person.
For the U.S. and Canada, or any country, to continue participating in the Winter Olympics, they must commit to a greener performance — a reality brought into question by Vancouver’s lack of snow, which was a consequence of a changing climate. The reality is that while Olympic competitiveness is a priority for both nations, green competitiveness is not.
In the U.S., despite the House passing a climate change bill in 2009, which includes a cap-and-trade component to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants, and despite the good work of Senators such as Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senate is poised to unravel gains made by the House. This unraveling reflects public sentiment: Americans are cooling on the concept of climate change. According to a poll conducted by Yale and George Mason universities in early 2010, only 57 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, compared with 71 percent in October 2008.
In Canada, similar trends exist and, much as in the Olympics, the world is watching. BBC News’ recent survey shows Canada’s image in the world deteriorating sharply in the last year, due largely to the country’s environmental policies. Yet unlike Americans, who increasingly rank climate near the bottom of policy concerns, a 2010 poll commissioned by the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute found that Canadians see the climate as a greater threat than terrorism. Forty-nine percent point to climate change as the main threat; only 28 percent identified terrorism. This threat assessment has yet to materialize into climate change prevention: Only one in five Canadians say they are doing as much as they can to reduce their impact on climate change, according to a survey by the World Wildlife Fund in March.
The U.S. and Canada’s lackluster support for tackling climate change made waves at Copenhagen’s climate conversation in December, which suffered from a lack of leadership from many of the top 10 Olympic medal holders. Meanwhile, every academy or society of top scientists in the industrialized world, from the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. to the Royal Societies in London and Canada, has warned that human-induced climate change is real and represents a monumental threat to society.
It is remarkable that we use economic arguments to justify our inaction. The threat of climate change is not unlike the threat of war; yet, we don’t decry spending tens of billions annually to protect our homeland. We don’t complain about spending tens of thousands each year to insure against theft, fire or earthquake. Failure to address the issue will destroy the global economy, costing more than both world wars. Sir Nicholas Stern, former senior economist with the World Bank, suggests the cost of acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be 2 percent to 3 percent of annual gross domestic product. Surely investing in green energy and jobs is a hedge against uncertainty and a huge potential disaster.
How to motivate gold-medaling, then, in the sport of going green? In rallying Olympian behavior, the proof must be in the pudding. Imagine the U.S. and Canada as athletes in training for a competition. As the coach, you would want to expose your athlete to few toxins, little risk and no harm, and you want to harness the natural physical assets of the athlete, with little reliance on outside supplements.
The analogy to green performance is hardly a stretch of the imagination: The U.S. and Canada are unfit athletes. We are hardly harnessing our renewable natural resources — wind and solar — which could provide enough energy to power the entire continent. We are exposing ourselves to incredible risk by relying on foreign fossil fuels from unstable governments. We continue to belch carbon dioxide into the air, which slowly eats away at the health of our citizens.
As Vancouver’s Olympic medalists make their rounds in our respective countries, securing endorsements, giving speeches and receiving the accolades they deserve, we must not lose sight of the potential of global sportsmanship in going green, nor must we forget the fact that the Winter Olympics, like the one in near-snowless Vancouver, may soon be our last if we fail to act fast. It is time to start training. For the earth and its athletes, it may be our most important competition ever.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. David Suzuki, co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.