Rio and the Games of Climate Change

The rhythm and color bursting through Rio’s opening ceremony on Friday suddenly halted when a somber segment on climate change and environmental problems began. The segment startled viewers by explaining carbon emissions, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels. Why bring this up in such a festive event brimming with joy and pride? Well, the whole world was watching, so why not?

At first, the segment seemed highly hypocritical. Brazil is a country with a record of massive deforestation and water pollution, the latter of which caused concerns for Olympic water events. But, at the same time, the British and Americans pointing critical fingers are not free from blame either. This hypercritical situation is similar to the one China faced and continues to face. The Olympics puts host countries under a magnifying glass on the global stage. These countries’ developing nation status draws extra attention from other countries that may wish these emerging nations will not succeed.

The Rio Olympic games has a green theme, with medals manufactured from recycled materials, each country planting a tree, and the Olympic flame small in size to reduce CO2 emissions. The game’s green theme, of course, is not perfect, with issues over sewage treatment and with only about a quarter of the promised seedlings planted to compensate CO2 emissions.

A critical eye is essential for ensuring these mega-sporting events do not harm the environment or local communities. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was heavily criticized for displacing thousands of poorer city residents for the construction of Olympic facilities, and Beijing has already come under scrutiny for the 2022 Winter Olympics’ potential environmental damages and human rights abuses. These are extremely legitimate concerns, which deserve further study, but the critiques should be constructive not divisive.

A recent Quartz video described how the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony raised the bar for opening ceremony content. The 2008 opening ceremony illustrated the country’s history, and projected an image of China it wanted the rest of the world to see: a nation with a rich history, rapid progress and leadership potential. Similarly, the Rio Opening ceremony showed its history, even showcasing excruciating memories of slavery and colonization. The climate change section extended this confrontation with painful, uncomfortable concepts. Resolving global problems like climate change and human rights abuses requires discomfort and facing wrongdoings and injustices head on. Ignoring these issues only allows them to grow. This discomfort is also innately part of the Olympic Games, where athletes train for years, pushing through pain to reach a higher level of performance. The early stages of tackling climate change will require similar growing pains, but delaying these actions will make them harder endure in the future. Perhaps this was Brazil’s way of owning up to its mistakes and moving forward, potentially, as an environmental leader.

The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, stressed the need for unity. Bach emphasizes the necessity of unity in a world ravaged by “crisis, mistrust, and uncertainty.” The Olympics are a symbol of shared humanity, international sportsmanship in addition to competition. The picture circulating the web of North and South Korean gymnasts taking a selfie is a testament to this potential uniting ability of the Olympics. This sportsman-like, competitive atmosphere should be extended to the global environmental movement, lending assistance to those who need it, cooperating in international agreements, creating markets where environmental products have a competitive advantage, and pushing each other to be more sustainable. As this blog has mentioned before in previous posts, finger pointing is only helpful up to a certain point, and collaboration is a more impactful tool. Like the Olympic games, participating in climate change mitigation requires persistence, discomfort, and mutual respect.

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