Climate, energy and the Olympics future

Our guest blogger is long-time commenter Richard Brenne.  He’s an award-winning screenwriter who teaches a NASA-sponsored on-line Global Climate Change class, serves on the American Meteorological Society’s Committee to Improve Climate Change Communication.  His previous post was “What can the Winter Olympic sports tell us about climate change?

Vancouver will never host another Olympics.  Okay, another Winter Olympics.  They could’ve much more easily held the Summer Olympics there these last two weeks.  In uncertain economic times the key to affordably hosting future Olympic games will be to use existing infrastructure and host them again as has happened in St. Moritz, Innsbruck, Lake Placid and Los Angeles.

Global warming is the reason Vancouver will never host another Winter Olympics.  They barely dodged (biathlon) bullets at dozens of events, and the Olympic Committee would rather use Donald Trump’s hair as the Olympic flame than go through this again.  Climate change is all about likelihoods of things like the record warmth Vancouver has had increasing, and the Olympic Committee rolled Jim Hansen’s dice and came up snake eyes.

In the decades that would have to pass for Vancouver to be considered as a host again, instead of a one in a dozen chance of having warmth like this, the chances might climb to as high as a one in two, three or four chance.  The reason this Olympics had a one in a dozen chance rather than one in over a hundred chance of record warmth is because as the baseline of warmth rises, the chance of record warmth exceeds the chance of record cold.  And the chance of a record warm January (and I suspect February, or at least a near-record) that has crippled and endangered these Olympics increases even more than a record on any individual day.

Yes this is an El Nino year, which is literally all every Olympic meteorologist, everyone involved with the Olympics, everyone on NBC , the Weather Channel and every NBC affiliate has wanted to talk about.  They’ve almost literally done quadruple-twisting back flips to stamp “EL NINO ONLY!” into the snow of every venue, or the rare venue that has enough snow to do that.

But this year’s moderate El Nino has produced this record warmth because the baseline of warming has raised, something exactly no one on NBC, the Weather Channel or almost anywhere else wants to talk about.

So how did global warming impact the Vancouver Olympic games?

I could hear every mechanism from all the committees to all the refrigerating compressors groaning under the unrelenting warmth before and during these Olympics.  Every human and refrigerating mechanism was turned up to an 11 like Nigel’s amp in the mockumentary “Spinal Tap.”

On Cypress Mountain snow plastic pipes with dry ice ran beneath mountains of snow that was trucked and helicoptered into place in a bizarre and comical positive feedback loop, the fossil fuels used to do this creating a tiny percentage of the CO2 that increases the chances of the kind of warming they got.  They trucked or helicoptered in 4.4 million pounds of snow, refrigerated and added more chemicals to artificially freeze it than hockey announcer Jeremy Roenick has in his hair.

The Nordic skiers had to race in temperatures up to 52 degrees, something few racers have ever seen in serious world competition.  I saw at least one Nordic ski racer pour a plastic bottle of water of his head, about the tiniest of positive feedback loops (it took oil to manufacture, package and transport the water bottle), something most Nordic ski race aficionados have never seen before.

The Alpine ski and snowboard racers are supposed to race on bulletproof ice from top to bottom so the course is the same for first to last racers and so there aren’t dangerous ruts.  At these Olympics the courses ranged from ice and crust at the top to slush at the bottom.  All Olympians race on the World Cup of ski races, and if these had been World Cup races most would’ve been cancelled, as they cancelled World Cup races in Whistler three different years in the 1990s.  The women’s slalom and snowboard were held in the slushiest and most rutted conditions I’ve ever seen for such competitions.

Didier Cuche was the men’s downhill favorite coming into the Olympics and he was leading by 36 hundreds of a second (many Olympic and World Cup races are won by just a few hundreds of a second) with only a few gates to go but he hit slush that the medal winners didn’t hit, or the fact that they outweighed him by dozens of pounds allowed them to plow through it and made the difference.  This might not mean anything to most Americans, but for Cuche, millions of Swiss and other knowledgeable ski fans, it was a disaster as he finished a disappointing sixth.

Even refrigerated ice in the hockey center was far below the quality one should expect for any NHL, Olympic or other high-caliber game, because three games in a day and the opening of doors to let people in and out didn’t allow for high-quality ice in these temperatures.

What is the likely future of the Olympic games?

First let’s take the macro, long-term, big picture view.  The modern Olympic games are a large and meaningful part of global culture.  They are one of countless by-products of the one-time Age of Cheap and Abundant Fossil Fuels . The brilliant geo-physicist and peak oil pioneer M. King Hubbert has a graph with 10,000 years of human history, with now as the midpoint between 5,000 years ago and 5,000 years in the future.  This Fossil Fuel Era is just a brief spike of a few hundred years in the middle of the 10,000 year graph.

Unless we can transfer the global economy to renewables, which fossil fuel interests appear ready to fight literally to the death to prevent, the Bell Curve of fossil fuel production will produce copycat Bell Curves in most things including, quite ominously, food production and thus population.  Of course few  of these Bell Curves will be perfectly symmetrical, but it is human nature to imagine that every trend we ride up the left side of the Bell Curve will continue indefinitely, which is what most conventional economists including Julian Simon and his disciples like Bjorn Lomborg and Roger Piekle, Jr. apparently believe (and “believe” is the only word that could be used here).

The Olympics have basically been growing in size, scope, grandeur and media coverage since the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896.  In all these categories it seems likely they peaked in Beijing in 2008 as China’s coming out party.  With estimates of $40 billion or more spent on those games despite cheap Chinese labor, it is hard to imagine any nation having the resources or the motivation to do that again, including China itself.

It appears to me and the many experts  in this area including Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Al Bartlett, Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, Les Brown, Bill McKibben, James Howard Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Donella and Dennis Meadows and many others that we’re running into global limits to growth, especially the cheap and abundant fossil-fueled growth that we’re used to.

So the Olympic games could follow a Bell Curve and begin to contract in budget, size and scope until someday they may be as small as they were a few decades ago, and then ultimately maybe many decades ago.  In addition to peak oil and other resource depletion meaning the global economy might not be so global in the future, there could be economic contraction if not collapse, and resource limitation if not resource wars.  Then heat waves could plague all athletes, workers and spectators at future Summer Olympics, sea level rise could affect the infrastructure of coastal cities enough to impact the infrastructure surrounding the venues themselves, as well as a host of other problems, both predicted and unforeseen.

The Winter Olympics are even more problematic, quite possibly just in four years in Sochi, Russia, which sits on the Black Sea with palm trees and February highs in the 60s.  Like Whistler and Cypress the mountains are high above Sochi, but they could have warming problems as well.  No ski areas or other venues existed when they won the bid in 2007 or exist now, and Russia’s oil and gas-fueled economy might not support the games, and the levels of corruption, crime and the potential for war and terrorism from six neighboring countries including Chechnya put these Olympics in a more vulnerable situation than any except those that were cancelled.

When Colorado voters declined the 1976 Olympics after they’d been awarded to Denver they were quickly moved to Innsbruck where they’d been held 12 years earlier.  Salt Lake and others with existing venues should stand at the ready because the Sochi games for any number of political, economic, climate, weather and other reasons might not come off at all, and even if they do it’s possible athletes and likely spectators from the West will stay away in droves.

How about beyond that?  In addition to returning to host cities with existing infrastructure, due to any combination of reasons I mention above the Winter Olympics especially could someday in this century try to find a permanent home like Lillehammer, who I would argue hosted the most positive Olympics ever, with the vast majority of everyone in the nation being thrilled with hosting something so central to their culture, while the majority in host cities like Atlanta didn’t appear to care very much in comparison.  The combination of latitude, elevation and a relatively continental climate helped make the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer the coldest ever, and they’d have the best chance of hosting Winter Olympics through most of this century.

Park City, a central focus of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, commissioned a report that estimated that by 2100 their climate could be what Salt Lake’s is today.  Aspen commissioned the same kind of report that estimated that in the worst case scenario (and remember that we’re beyond the worst-case CO2 emissions projected by the 2001 IPCC Report) by 2100 Aspen’s climate could resemble that of present-day Amarillo, Texas.  That begs the questions of how you’d hold a Winter Olympics at most ski areas (I wrote about the spring-snow debacle that killed Aspen’s men’s World Cup downhill for Sports Illustrated and my daughter experienced the same racing the Junior Olympics there in March of 2007, the second-warmest March in Colorado, the U.S. and world at the time), whether Aspen would have to change its name to Scrub Oak or Tumbleweed, and what the Amarillo climate might look like in 2100 (today’s Death Valley?  Worse?).

The skiers and skaters just get better and better at each Olympics, with faster and better skis, a larger population base of athletes to draw from, better coaching, training and technique.  But that trend, like so many others, might not continue.  In Russia, due to economic reasons all those factors have declined to the point where they’re winning around a fifth the number of gold medals they’ve won at previous Winter Olympics, even though there are now more than double the number of medals there were during the Soviet sports machine’s heyday around a quarter of a century ago.

With less snow to train on, higher energy prices someday soon making it prohibitively expensive to drive long distances to train and compete, and all the economic challenges that result, to me it’s possible that the greatest skiers and skaters there ever will be are alive among us today, whether they’re current Olympians or more likely small children.

Lastly, if Lillehammer doesn’t work out, I could see the Olympics around 2100 finding a permanent home atop the Jungfrau near the upper end of what had been the Alp’s largest glacier, held in the Olympic Solar Building.  All the skiing, skating and sliding events would be held in this one very large refrigerated building, a reminder of the culture that developed during thousands of years of relatively stable climate and the growth of civilization.

If we decided to build nothing but solar buildings now, it might not have to come to that.

— Richard Brenne

14 Responses to Climate, energy and the Olympics future

  1. paulm says:

    “In all these categories it seems likely they peaked in Beijing in 2008 as China’s coming out party.”

    Another sign that civilization has peaked with peak oil!

  2. Jeff Huggins says:


    That was quite a thought-provoking, well written, and helpful essay. I can’t say that it was “enjoyable” to read because the topic, and your points, are so concerning.

    The early Greeks — the wisest among them, anyhow — would be scratching their heads today in bewilderment (or rather in frustration) if they realized how little we’ve gained in terms of wisdom in all these centuries. Yes, we’ve gained a great deal of knowledge, and we’ve gained some wisdom, but (in many important ways) not much, if any.

    Anyhow, thanks for your essay.



  3. Esop says:

    Excellent article. Some notes about Lillehammer:
    The cold winter of 94 at Lillehammer was the first decent winter since 1988. 89 through 93 had temperatures way above average , mostly due to a positive Arctic Oscillation. Amazingly, the AO was negative during most of the winter of 94, creating excellent conditions for the games. In the years after 94, the winter climate has been very unstable, again mostly due to positive AO during most winter seasons. Same goes for most parts of Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. After 1988, it became impossible to say for sure if there would be snow on the ground at lower elevations in the middle of winter. We are talking latitudes of 60 degrees and further north, well past the Arctic circle.
    Was it purely by coincidence that the AO started to go overwhelmingly positive at the same time as global temperatures really started to skyrocket in the late 80’s? Two decades with mostly unusually mild winters caused most Scandinavians to accept that global warming was a reality. However, with the cold temperatures during the last two months since December 2009, the public opinion has shifted dramatically, the medias relentless attacks on climate science has made things worse, but the return to pre-89 like winter conditions has had the most impact by far. I have seen one single reference to the record smashing global average temp for January 2010, among loads of newspaper articles declaring AGW to be a thing of the past due to a return to cold winter temperatures.
    Most likely, the snowless winter conditions will return soon, just as they did after that cold winter of 94. The capital of Norway, Oslo, (120 miles from Lillehammer) will host the Nordic Ski World Championships in 2011, and despite the current winter being cold and snowy, I would not bet a single dime on the return of similar cold conditions next year.

  4. Henrit says:

    The events on some days were cancelled when the winter games were at Calgary. On the other slope of the Canadian Rockies it hit in the 30’s below zero and was incrediblu dangerous.
    Edmonton alberta ahs exceed 46 below this winter.

  5. Leif says:

    Thank you for your efforts Richard.
    Looking at your header photo a question came to mind. With rising sea levels how long before the major part of Vancouver itself must be abandon? Is there even a chance that it will exist in another 200 years?

  6. Ben Lieberman says:

    The choice of Sochi was fascinating: let’s choose a city next door to a possible war zone with a temperate, to say the least climate: Sochi is part of the Russian Riviera. Did the IOC meeting in snowy Guatemala City in July 2007 have any actual evidence that the climate at Sochi or even in the nearby mountains could support winter olympics.

    The mountain venue at Sochi is at an altitude of 600 meters or 1970 feet–that does not seem all that high, though I assume the top of the peaks are higher up: google earth suggests some 1800-2200 metes.

    So add together the climate crisis with a warm city with not enormously high mountains, and you get an interesting scenario.

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    paulm (#1) – You’ve hit the nail on the head. One of my primary goals is to synthesize the climate change and peak oil scientists, experts, communities and concerns, because those with the best expertise in both feel that they’re two sides of the same coin. I just spoke with Richard Heinberg, Asher Miller and their excellent Post-Carbon Institute about doing a large panel with Joe Romm, Richard Heinberg and others around July 20-23 in the San Francisco area, probably Stanford. We’ll keep you posted!

    Jeff Huggins (#2) – Thanks, and now I’ll be sending those e-mails as promised (and to Lou, Gail, Greg and the rest of you)! I think communicating the concerns scientists have using what real impacts will be to real people is the key. Since you’re such an excellent climate change communicator I’d love to work with you and others here on this.

    Esop (#3) – Are you writing from Norway? What you write is great to know, and I’d always like to know more. I was a little glib in suggesting Lillehammer as a permanent home but with great train service (I’m thinking maybe the most train-friendly Olympics?), some elevation, a continental climate and away from sea level unlike Oslo they might be the best single place we could choose. (Plus I love Norway. My grandmother, born in 1884, skied to school in Bergen that I believe gets more precipitation in rain than snow now throughout the five coldest months – anyone have data on this? Before my daughter’s Alpine and Nordic ski races we’d change the words to the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” to “Ski Like a Norwegian” and she did. The Norge Ski Team jackets of Kjetl Andre-Aamodt and Lasse Kjus with “The Attacking Vikings” under the “Norge” brought tears to my eyes, as did the skiing of the Alpine and Nordic Norwegians at these Olympics!)

    You’re right about the 2011 World Championships in Oslo possibly (1 in 5 chance? Better or worse odds?) looking like the Nordic races at these Olympics, which I suspect is largely unacceptable to the international Nordic ski racing community.

    It was just relative to all other past Olympic sites that I suggested Lillehammer as the permanent Winter Olympics home. Also because Norwegians would be more into doing it than anyplace and that motivation and experience would mean a lot. Also it seems they have one of the world’s healthier economies.

    Places like Vail (with north-facing slopes there and at Beaver Creek) with continental climates and high elevations could be candidates also, but I don’t think the IOC would ever consider Colorado again after 1976. Another thing about Sochi – Russia has never hosted anything remotely similar to an Alpine World Cup ski race, so will they be open to foreigners with the necessary experience running these races for them?

    Leif – You’ll be hearing from me also! Vancouver, like every other coastal city, will have serious problems. As much as it will affect our West Coast cities (good thing your gorgeous Port Townsend has the uptown on the plateau overlooking downtown, huh?) like all coastal cities, compared to southern Louisiana and Florida, the Nile and most of the other largest river deltas, the Netherlands, Venice, Bangladesh and most coastal American Gulf Coast and East Coast cities, the West Coast of North America will do better, but still poor enough that Vancouver like all other coastal cities will have to be increasingly re-thought and re-engineered over the next hundreds of years. As you know, sadly, we ain’t seen nothing yet. A penny of mitigation now could equal a grand of adaptation later.

  8. paulm says:

    here’s and another interesting connection to peak civilization and oil…
    the peak of humanity, literally, built on oil riches, will now not be outdone as we run out of cheap energy….
    and it will probably be brought down by sea level rise within 50yrs.
    Irony to boot….

    World’s tallest building opens in Dubai

  9. Steve says:

    NBC may not have mentioned climate change in part because of “clean coal” sponsorship (, with ads ending in “Coal is definitely America’s fuel,” spoken by a man whose brother is in Iraq, and providing cheap fuel to the U.S. economy is his way of helping the war effort.

    One of the many ads for cars began with “The Constitution of the American Driver, Article 1”, and went on to list the galvanizing principals, such as “Revel in the left lane” and “Cruising shall be our birthright.”

    One theater of the climate change battle is prying fossil fuel consumption loose from such iconic values as freedom, patriotism and what it means to be an American. The air (wave) war is being lost big-time. In fact, it looks like the powers for good don’t even have an air force.

    One could hope that, four years from now, such ads will be required to take the form of those bizarre drug ads on the evening news, whose narratives include long lists of side-effects while the protagonists do their best to look cheery.

  10. Richard Brenne says:

    paulm (#8) – There are a lot of candidates for what will challenge us most (peak oil and natural gas, lack of freshwater due to aquifer depletion and lessening of glacier and snowpack melt, depletion of topsoil, fish, trees, etc as well as all the other climate change symptoms) in addition to sea level rise. I think all of these things threatening global food supply combined is our primary concern, but sea level rise will be high on the list, especially over the course of this and future centuries.

    Simplistically, peak oil might be the jab that breaks our nose (and already has impacted our global economy far more than most are aware or willing to admit), but ultimately climate change might be the haymaker uppercut that knocks us out.

    Steve (#9) – Yours is a great point! The coal ads, oil and gas ads, and car ads seemed a high percentage of all Olympic ads – anybody in sociology or communication or journalism school looking for a doctoral dissertation topic?

    Then NBC lauded and nearly deified Shaun White for living in what looks to be about a 10,000 square foot house he’d spend a small percentage of his time in, and for having his own private snow half-pipe he regularly helicoptered up to (I’m guessing 10,500 or so feet above Silverton, Colorado) so he could train while allowing no one else to train with him. This was seen by NBC as the absolute height of cleverness, when to me it’s about the height of mindless excess.

    Shaun White might be seen as a hero to many if not most young people who still imagine we have unlimited cheap and abundant fossil fuels, but when the stuff really hits the fan he might consider a buzz-cut and baseball cap instead.

    (I like Shaun in every area other than carbon footprint, though I would like to have seen him take Ryan Miller’s place for seven hours of ultra-intense hockey, two hours of off-the-chart strenuous Nordic racing, Bode Miller’s 85 mph runs on bulletproof – well, usually – ice, or the ski aerialists three flips with five twists three times higher in the air than he got out of the halfpipe. But that is my balding middle-aged man’s perspective, but one that’s fairly knowledgeable about the relative rigors and histories of the various sports. What snowboarding has going for it more than anything else is hype.)

    And the point isn’t so much that the 23-year-old White is ignorant about carbon footprints, but that everyone in power at NBC is either ignorant or willfully and wantonly uncaring – probably the latter.

  11. George Ennis says:

    I have to agree that the success of the Vancouver Olympics is a cautionary tale about what our future winters may look like and its impact on culture. How many countries could afford to stage the Olympics given rising costs associated with rising temperatures?

    It was a blow-out of a party for Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada. I suspect once the ‘party’ is over and the legacy of debt associated with staging the Olympics remains to be paid out over the decades to come, I suspect that taxpayers in 2030 still trying to pay down the debt may be asking themselves what their grandparents and parents were thinking of when they agreed to stage this event. They may have to look at pictures to imagine that in fact it was once possible to ski at Cypress Mountain.

    As for Sochi, Russia or more specifically Krasnaya Polyana where the Alpine events will be held heli-skiing can extend trail length to nearly 7km (over 4 miles) by continuing up to 3,200 metres above sea level. Heli-skiing, the option favoured by Mr Putin, can open up a vertical of more than 2,000m (nearly 7,000 feet).

    It seems the extreme elements being added at the Winter Olympics is not just limited to new sports but also the efforts host countries must go to stage them. Sochi looks like it will continue this new tradition.

  12. Richard Brenne says:

    George Ennis (#11) – The way to make Olympics profitable as L.A. did in 1984 is to use existing venues (the L.A. Coliseum, Rose Bowl, Fabulous Forum, etc) and get lots of corporate sponsorship. So Vancouver would be in a position to do that with existing venues in the future if it weren’t for global warming making their odds of pulling off a future Olympics increasingly less likely.

    And wow, do you know where I can find some quotes of Putin’s wanting to use helicopters to get ski racers to the tops of mountains? Does he know that on a World Cup or Olympic downhill course there are many thousands of person-trips to groom, pack, water-inject, inspect, train, prepare skis, slip, race, etc? Is it because he doesn’t want the expense of trams, gondolas or chairlifts since there aren’t any currently in Krasnaya Polyana, perhaps named for his Pollyanna view?

    Maybe Putin and Palin could bag a few wolves or dissidents from helicopters on their way up to the ski race starts, but other than that the helicopter idea is about the goofiest I’ve ever heard unless they want more spectacular crashes and in that case they should just race the helicopters themselves.

    Speaking of Russian helicopters, we lived in Moscow for several months to teach and I took my (then) five-year-old daughter to a park where they were offering free Russian Army helicopter rides and when we realized the Russian army pilots hadn’t been paid in months and saw the helicopters vibrating off rusty bolts we reconsidered.

    At the same event they had a dog race in the middle of the big grassy park with no track where they brought in a bunch of Greyhounds (more the dogs than busses) and set up some plastic net fencing and set the dogs loose and the dogs had no rabbit or any idea which way to go and so some ran full-speed into the plastic netting (happily none were hurt) while we all just stood there and watched the other dogs disappear over the horizon.

    So on second thought, Sochi could host the most entertaining Olympics ever.

  13. Darren Peets says:

    I suspect the Olympics won’t die out any time soon. When times are tough, we turn to things like movies and sports as a form of escape, so the money and will should be in place to continue them. Athletes may need to relocate to suitable climates, and the funding model may need more money from TV to compensate for less from sponsors, but I’d expect the games to continue to exist in more or less their current form for a while. The bigger variable for them may be political instability or its aftermath.

    As far as Vancouver hosting the Winter Olympics again, I seem to recall that it owes its warm climate and plentiful precipitation to a warm ocean current that comes from somewhere near Hawaii, smacks into the coast near Vancouver, and swirls off into the Gulf of Alaska. I also seem to recall those ocean currents being driven by the (dwindling) temperature differences between the Arctic and other Oceans. In any case, there are plenty of unknowns kicking around when it comes to climate, so Vancouver may well end up with a more suitable wintery climate in a couple decades. If only there were trains to get people there…

  14. Esop says:

    Yep, I’m writing from Norway. I missed the Lillehammer Olympics because I resided in another Olympic host town (Salt Lake City) at the time, then barely missed the Salt Lake Olympics by moving to Norway in 2001…
    Base elevation of Lillehammer is approx. 600ft, but it has venues at 3000-4000ft within a fairly short distance, so you are right, it would be a prospect for a permanent home for the Olympics, even in years with strong positive AO (on top of the continuing warming trend).
    Tromsø wished to apply for the 2018 games, but was not allowed to do so, after a vote at the Norwegian Sports Council.
    About the Nordic Ski Worlds at Oslo next year: I would say about a 30% chance of having decent snow coverage. Totally depends on the AO, but it seems that the trend of a negative AO could stick around for a while. The result of that would be accelerated melting of the Arctic sea ice along with cold winter temperatures in Northern Europe, resulting in rapidly growing AGW skepticism (as seen this winter). The irony.