Former Wallaby David Pocock urges sport to take lead on climate crisis
As the world’s best players gather in Europe for the November internationals, the majority will be looking no further ahead than their next game. Thinking about the future of, say, the planet, tends to be secondary to winning this Saturday. Rarer still are professional athletes committed to using their platform to call out underperforming corporations or governments.
For every Marcus Rashford taking an inspirational stand on free school meals there are thousands of others perfectly happy to drink coffee and fiddle with their phones. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but in the opinion of David Pocock, the former Wallaby flanker, it is time for everyone to wake up and smell the global caffeine. As he bluntly puts it: “You don’t need to be a climate scientist to say: ‘I want my kids to have a future.’ We need to make changes now.”
Which is why he is urging as many people as possible, from Beauden Barrett to Boris Johnson, to watch a film on the subject called Playing Against the Clock, which airs on BT Sport on Sunday. It underlines how the climate crisis is affecting sport and sketches out some of the implications if, as Pocock says, “we don’t take the action we really need to take.” It is his firm belief that sport’s unifying power can help tackle the encroaching threat of fires, drought, floods and rising sea levels that increasingly confront us all.
Some may be wondering what, specifically, this has to do with the All Blacks as they settle in to their Cardiff hotel having just flown in from Washington DC, or England in their training retreat on Jersey. Perhaps it is time they placed themselves in the sandals of Pacific island-based players or those in rural areas where sport and farming, until now, have coexisted happily.
“As humans we’re not very well wired to deal with what seem like very slow changes,” says Pocock. “But it’s now getting real for millions of people around the world. I think we’re going to see a much more drastic push to treat this like the crisis it is.”
Which, arguably, makes the looming Cop26 summit in Glasgow this autumn’s most significant fixture, sporting or otherwise. Pocock is not holding his breath on instant radical action – “Whether we have the leaders who can do that I don’t know but you have to believe it’s possible” – but he does have strong views on an achievable first step. “It’s about societies and countries recognising that when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging.
“Look at Australia. We’re currently ranked last in the world in terms of climate inaction. We’re subsidising fossil fuels by Aus $10bn a year. We’ve just approved three new coalmines this year and we’re opening up huge new gas reserves. It’s total madness.”
Maybe there is an idea in there for Test scoreboards of the future: a seven-point handicap for any team whose country consistently fails to meet its climate promises? Or just the calmly persuasive Pocock telling it like it is up on the big screen before kick-off. “We need more people caring about climate action and starting to vote from the perspective that it is the most important thing for our futures. It’s about acknowledging that, as individuals, we live in a society that has been based on fossil fuels for a long time.
“To change that, we’re all going to have to be part of the solution. We’re all going to have to make individual choices about where we get our electricity, the vehicle we drive – if we drive – or the transport we use. Businesses are going to be expected to have a plan in place and to be heading towards net zero. Sport will have to deal with that. We know how bad it’ll be if we don’t act but, at the same time, it’s not too late. I guess that’s the hope.”
Pocock has long walked the walk on such issues. He is back in his native Zimbabwe, working with poor rural farmers on livestock management, aiming to restore degraded rangelands and set up a new 170,000-acre wildlife area that, in time, will benefit the local community. There is no satellite TV so his recent rugby viewing has been limited but that has allowed him more time to contemplate what really matters.
“The thing we crave as humans is meaning. Reorientating our lives back towards nature and trying to find ways to deal with these environmental crises potentially holds the key to a lot of the issues, such as depression and loneliness, that we’re seeing around the world in cultures that are becoming disconnected from the places where they live.”
From where Pocock now sits, players with something other than their sport to think about will be the better for it mentally. “It was something I had to learn. Early on in my career I was totally obsessed about the game and did an insane amount of extras, but balance is really important.
“In 2017, I took a year away from the game and one of the real gifts of that time was realising that, in the great scheme of things, rugby wasn’t important at all.”
If several more prominent sporting voices fancy joining the chorus line, so much the better. “You’ve seen the impact of someone like Marcus Rashford in the UK. The history of sport is littered with athletes who have been willing to take a stand on things they think are more important than the sports they’re in. That’s when sport’s at its best: when it’s encouraging society to be more inclusive and working on things that, ultimately, are probably a lot more important than sport.
“Are we going to see more and more athletes saying ‘I want to be part of the solution’? It’s a personal decision in terms of how they want to use their platform and what sort of risks they want to take. As an athlete if you speak up about anything outside of your sport you open yourself up to a whole bunch of criticism.
“But this was something I felt really strongly about. I knew what it was like to be that young rugby player who idolised players on the international stage and with privilege comes responsibility. Humans can achieve extraordinary things if we’re willing to our minds to it: what can the future be if we really get this right? We’re heading in the right direction but unfortunately we don’t have 30 years in which to act. It needs to happen now.”