The first thing extreme heat does to the human body is weaken its ability to regulate temperature. What follows, especially for athletes, is rapid-onset dehydration, muscle failure, and sometimes even death. In recent years, pros have adopted newly developed training regimens to help them keep cool, but when the mercury really spikes, heat illness is still never far off.
That’s why the World Cup, traditionally a summer spectacle, will begin Sunday. In the climate change era, Qatar, which is host to this year’s tournament, is among the fastest-warming countries on Earth. Due to a combination of its peninsular geography and intensive development—including for the World Cup—Qatar has already well surpassed the 2 degrees Celsius of heating above preindustrial levels that world leaders vowed in the Paris Agreement to avoid. Summer temperatures there now regularly exceed 40 degrees C (104 degrees Fahrenheit), and in the coming weeks, they’ll likely reach upwards of 32 degrees C (90 degrees F). It’s so hot that Qataris are finding ways to air-condition the outdoors.
But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg when it comes to climate change and this World Cup. From the very fact of fifa awarding Qatar hosting duties to darkly authoritarian preparations for the tournament and fears for attending fans’ health amid the heat, fossil fuels and climate are everywhere in these games. For newsrooms, World Cups are a bonanza of inspiring, feel-good content, spurring welcome boosts in audience and ad revenue. It might be tempting, then, to sideline those weightier stories: Who wants to dwell on climate change when megastars like Neymar or Lionel Messi are on the pitch? Taken together, however, the climate links to this World Cup paint a vivid picture of how a warming planet is transforming sports—one so dramatic that it might even capture the attention of viewers who care only about the soccer.
From the get-go, the Qatar World Cup was a climate story. In 2010, when fifa first announced that Qatar would host the 2022 championship, rumors swirled that the country had effectively bought the games; the Gulf state is home to vast oil and natural-gas reserves, which in recent decades have spurred fabulous, leaps-and-bounds economic growth there. Last year, the US Justice Department formally accused Qatar—which denies all allegations of impropriety—of bribing fifa officials to win hosting rights.
If the fossil fuels that propel climate change helped Qatar secure the event, development in the cup’s name has also contributed to global heating. As with so many World Cups and Olympic Games past, preparations for 2022 in Qatar entailed extensive building projects, of glitzy stadiums, scores of hotels, and in this case a new international airport in Doha, the capital. According to fifa, emissions for this World Cup—including air travel and accommodation, in addition to development—will total some 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than several dozen countries emit in a year. Qatar has pledged to offset these emissions by purchasing carbon credits, but, as Wired reported, rather than doing so via standardized international markets, event organizers created their own scheme, which in the end might do very little to offset anything.
New development drives not only global but local temperature rise. This, in turn, drives demand for air-conditioning, which is itself a significant source of carbon emissions. The result is what the Washington Post called a “vicious cycle,” noting that between 2016 and 2030 Qatar’s air-conditioning capacity will nearly double.
And it’s not just athletes contending with Qatar’s heat. Hundreds of the migrant laborers who flocked to Qatar over the past decade died, likely due to heat, Time magazine reported—although death certificates tended to cite cardiac issues. (Under Qatari labor law, employers owe no compensation unless deaths are explicitly work-related.) For years, the appalling treatment of workers helping Qatar prepare for the World Cup has drawn intense criticism, from journalists, human rights outfits, and world leaders alike. The scrutiny forced some improvements, and Qatar pioneered cooling technology to help workers cope. But heat-related injuries remained widespread. “Those technologies are expensive,” Time’s Aryn Baker wrote recently. “They will only save lives if the lives are considered worth saving.”
To be sure, this isn’t all just World Cup–adjacent climate trivia. On a fundamental level, collectively this is a story about the horrors we’re willing to accept for the sake of pastime; the risks we’re willing to accept for our athletes; and the power that fossil fuels continue to wield on the world stage, at a time when experts urge a speedy transition to renewable energy sources to help stave off the worst impacts of the climate emergency. If for some sports fans that fails to impress, perhaps the existential threat climate change poses to events like the World Cup will. In 2019, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported, in the context of heat risks to competitors in Tokyo’s then-upcoming Summer Olympics, that climate change will drastically reduce the number of cities worldwide that are capable of hosting large outdoor sporting events, down from hundreds to mere dozens. According to medical researchers, the paper added, future Olympics might need to drop popular, heat-vulnerable endurance events, like the marathon. In the coming weeks, billions across the world will tune in to the World Cup, including many who aren’t traditional news consumers. For journalists, that’s a can’t-miss opportunity to communicate the gravity and scope of the climate problem.
Some news outlets, including the ones previously mentioned in this column, have done good work spelling out the climate connection in the lead-up to this World Cup. An ESPN reporter, Mark Ogden, underwent training in a heat chamber designed to simulate the conditions footballers will face in Qatar. “The heat was constant and inescapable, weighing down heavier with every minute,” he wrote. Recent Olympics coverage also set a strong example. ABC News’s Kenneth Moten, for instance, filed an impressive five-minute segment on how climate change contributed to athlete injuries during last year’s Tokyo Olympics. “Japan and Tokyo, in particular, are a microcosm for global warming,” one scientist told Moten. “They probably give us…a vision into what’s coming in the future.”
The same can be said about this World Cup, and sadly, unless the world rallies to do something about it, that vision—for sports and the planet both—is grim. Although the lion’s share of coverage will surely go to triumphs, surprise upsets, and the international bonhomie that permeates events like this, journalists shouldn’t skimp on the bigger picture. Climate change is so often conveyed as a story of monster storms and tiresome political rancor. But climate change is really about us, about our bodies and their limits. That’s a story that everyone on the planet can understand, viscerally, and the World Cup is our chance to tell it.
This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by CJR and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story. The author is CCNow’s deputy director.
TOP IMAGE: Saif Zaman via Wikimedia Commons