Australian rules footballers have come together to tackle the climate crisis with more than 260 players from the men’s and women’s competitions signing up to the newly formed AFL Players For Climate Action group.
The group is thought to be the largest from any single Australian professional sporting code – all of which leave heavy carbon footprints due to the regular and extensive travel involved – to collectively put their names to a climate campaign.
North Melbourne’s Tom Campbell and retired Kangaroos and Port Adelaide player Jasper Pittard on Sunday launched the initiative, which includes recent AFL premiership winner Ben Brown and other high-profile players such as Dyson Heppell, Jordan Roughead and Luke Parker, along with AFLW stars Daisy Pearce, Erin Phillips and Darcy Vescio.
The group aims to provide players with guidance on how to reduce their individual impact on the environment by reducing their emissions, as well as using their profiles to build support for greater climate action from clubs and fans.
The AFL said it “fully supports” the initiative, but initially there will be no official involvement from the league or its clubs. The next step for the group is to begin conversations with clubs and encourage change in the way they build infrastructure and travel. There will also be a push to use more renewable energy and cut down on waste.
A recent survey of 580 AFL and AFLW players suggested 92% were concerned about climate change but most were unsure how they could be part of the solution. AFL Players For Climate Action aims to provide players with credible information from experts in an attempt to effect change.
The idea was born out of conversations between Campbell and Pittard when they had time to research and educate themselves while stuck in the AFL’s Queensland Covid bubble last season. Prompted by Australia’s catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20, the pair engaged teammates in discussions about how climate change was worsening extreme weather events.
Campbell and Pittard found their views struck a chord with a number of players and vowed to do something about it.
“Talking to other players and others about climate I can really see the passion come out – people care about each other and the places we love, and they want to be a part of the solution. It’s just hard to know where to start,” Pittard said.
“Being involved in footy since I was a young kid, I know the power of teamwork and the importance of having a strong collective voice. I believe the opportunity to leverage our platform as current and former AFL players to help normalise climate action in this country is important. People listen to what athletes have to say.”
The latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in August found human activities were unequivocally heating the planet and causing changes not seen for centuries and in some cases thousands of years.
“You don’t have to look far to see the devastation climate change is having on Australians, and our sport, including the impacts of extreme weather events,” Campbell said. “I’m not a scientist, but I listen to the climate experts and they’re telling us we need to act now to tackle global warming. We all have a role to play.”
Carlton star Vescio, who was the AFLW’s leading goalkicker in 2017 and 2021, said she was looking forward to joining up with like-minded players to use their high-profile platforms to speak to fans of the game, clubs and the league.
“Things are changing really quickly and it’s scary,” she said. “Global warming and worsening extreme weather can be hard to deal with, so for a long time I haven’t engaged in the conversation. But now it’s urgent and scientists and experts say we need to take action.”
Changes in the world’s climate is “Australia’s big elephant in the room”, said another member of the group, Sydney Swans’ Tom Hickey.
“Our government doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“As sportspeople we have a platform where we can talk about things we are passionate about and encourage the conversation. Climate activism is essentially about just giving a shit. Giving a shit about the world we live in and the creatures on it. Wanting to protect the natural world. Climate change will affect all of us so it seems like it’s an important thing to care about and we need to take urgent action.”
An AFL spokesperson said many clubs and stadia were already engaged in actioning initiatives on climate change and the league was working through next steps on how the football industry as a whole could make contributions to environmental sustainability.
An “overwhelming majority” of members of the players’ union, the AFLPA, also support the initiative, which has prompted a review of its own workplace processes “to see how we can do better”, the organisation’s chief executive, Paul Marsh, said.
A number of members are already involved in a wider sporting scheme headed by the Wallabies great David Pocock and signatories of an open letter to the federal government calling for cuts to Australia’s emissions by at least half by 2030 and net zero before 2050.
“Australia has a huge opportunity to be world leaders in the clean energy transformation – just look at our renewable energy resources,” Pittard said. “We want to be part of the winning team that helps to make this happen and helps safeguard the future of the people, the places and the sports we love.”