A Message for Sochi: Students Pitch Climate Story at Olympics

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

DSC 0377w 636x310 Team Climate: Kaylee Weil, Bo Uaganbayar, Diana Madson, Tom Owens, and Taylor Rees.
With thousands of athletes (and even more media members) ready to descend on Sochi, Russia from around the world, there will be no shortage of storylines to emerge from the 2014 Winter Olympics.
A group of F&ES students wants to make sure that one of those storylines is the specter of climate change.
Working with the nonprofit group Protect Our Winters, five master’s students will spend nine days at Sochi reminding journalists, spectators, and athletes alike how outdoor winter sports — and the economies that depend on them — could ultimately be imperiled on a warming planet.
In a running blog, they’ll share the stories of current and past Olympians who are already feeling the effects of reduced snowfall. They’ll work with five athletes to publish their own op-eds for newspapers and websites.
And they’ll pitch the climate angle to any journalist willing to listen.
“Our goal is to call more media attention to the issue of climate change,” said Taylor Rees M.E.M ‘14, who helped organize the project. “We want to make sure it is part of the conversation, where it should be.”
Other students traveling to Sochi as part of the project include Diana Madson M.E.M. ‘14, Tom Owens M.E.M. ‘14, Bo Uaganbayar B.A. ‘12, M.E.M. ‘14, and Kaylee Weil B.A. ‘12, M.E.M. ‘14.
Winter athletes are constantly traveling around the world to find the snow. So they're intimately in touch with what's happening.
— Diana Madson
The project — which was borne out of the F&ES course International Organizations and Conferences (F&ES 850a) — will specifically call attention to 18 athlete advocates, including eight who will represent the United States at the Sochi games.
Some of the athletes include Olympic champion Hannah Kearney, who will represent the U.S. in freestyle skiing, U.S. snowboarder Justin Reiter, and two-time Olympian Kaylin Richardson, a former alpine ski racer who will be at Sochi with The Weather Channel.
While climate issues and the sports world don’t normally intersect, winter athletes have an important insight into this critical global debate, says Madson, who grew up skiing in California.
“Winter athletes are constantly traveling around the world to find the snow. So they’re intimately in touch with what’s happening,” she said. “Even 30-year-old skiers have been doing it for 24 years, so they’ve been able to track the progress of the changes.
“And while you can’t always track direct events to climate change specifically, because its part of a bigger system, it’s trending. And right now there’s a lot less snow than there was 30 years ago.”
These athletes also have access to a larger media platform than the typical graduate student, said Weil.
“They’re the ones with widespread reach and audiences that are willing to listen,” she said. “Whether it’s about what they eat for breakfast or about climate change, when they talk, people listen.”
A very real concern for the organizers of the Sochi Games is that mild temperatures will disrupt the alpine events, forcing crews to dump artificial snow by the helicopter-load.
If that happens, Weil says, the F&ES team will be nearby, waiting to talk with reporters. “Our hope is to be the climate change/winter sports experts on the ground,” she said. “If there’s a story — and we believe there will be — we will be on the ground, facts in hand, ready to help tell a story that absolutely needs to be told.”
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842