"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