Climate change will force major sports leagues to change. Is MLB ready?

On a 90-degree day in early July, shortly before the All-Star break, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Brent Suter squinted into the sun at Citi Field and said he often feels existential fear for the future of the planet.

Suter studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard, he namechecks the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg as one of his biggest heroes, he’s a self-described “bird-etarian,” who hopes to go fully vegetarian or even vegan when his playing days are done.

Lately he’s noticed that more and more games feel like the hottest ever. He remarks that the Texas Rangers had to replace their 25-year-old open-air stadium with something that could be artificially cooled to persuade fans to come to games. He’s 32 and worries what kind of world his son will inherit.

“I've talked with a lot of environmental activists throughout the years,” Suter said, “and we share that same sentiment of like, we're hopeful, but then there's fear there.”

The fear is of a future that is already upon us: climate change and the record-setting natural disasters that it causes are wreaking havoc on the environment and killing people. This is an everyone problem and sports are not immune — not from the effects, nor the culpability, nor the responsibility to work toward a more sustainable future. Powerful corporations have a unique obligation to prioritize the kind of radical shift that is necessary to thwart the most dire projections. MLB endeavors to be a part of that solution. But its current efforts lack urgency.

Big business needs to step forward

Andrew Hoffman studies the intersection of the corporate world and the environmental one. He’s a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, at the nexus of the university’s business school and school for environment and sustainability. When he talks about sustainability, he speaks in an expert’s jargon about sweeping philosophical issues.

“We have entered a new geological epoch, we have left the Holocene and we've entered the Anthropocene, the age of humans, where you can't describe the Earth without the impact of humans,” he says. “And that is a significant shift. Climate change is one of those markers. So when you put it on those terms, this is not an environmental problem, it is a systems breakdown requiring a systems change. The system is the economy.”

That’s where the business side of things comes in. The vast network of corporations that comprise our global economy got us into this situation, they will have to play a major role in how we get through it.

“And so that's why we're seeing a lot of companies starting to step forward,” Hoffman says. “You can talk about it being role modeling, and I think that's important. It's also educating, teaching people we can do this, you can do this, too. We can do this without destroying our way of life. That’s the key.”

When you put it like that, the situation seems hopeful. If not of the science itself, then at least of the intentions of the human forces involved.

But does Hoffman really believe that — that we can repair the systems by changing the economy?

“Uh, that’s a good question, and I don’t know,” he says.

“But we have to try.”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - APRIL 01: An aerial drone view of Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers MLB team, on April 01, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. The grand opening of Globe Life Field has been postponed after Major League Baseball delayed the start of the 2020 season in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
The Texas Rangers replaced their ballpark with Globe Life Field in 2020, touting a retractable roof to guard against increasingly sweltering summer days. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

A player-driven climate movement

A decade ago, as a baseball player who cared deeply about the environment, Chris Dickerson found that when he tried to talk to his teammates about sustainability in the clubhouse, “They looked at me like I had two heads.”

“Largely people thought that global warming was a hoax,” he says now.

Of course it’s not, though. And the past 10 years have made that only all the more obvious and urgent. There are holdouts — a troubling segment of the American population remains skeptical of climate change or ignores the calcifying scientific consensus that human behavior is to blame — but younger generations are increasingly likely to recognize the reality.

And now, even in largely conservative baseball clubhouses, a growing cadre of athletes is committed to promoting sustainability.

Dickerson, a former Cincinnati Reds outfielder who retired from baseball after 2017, helps them to do so through a nonprofit called Players for the Planet, which organizes athlete beach cleanups, electronic waste collections at ballparks, tree plantings and in-game recycling. The Brewers, who have an especially robust contingent of players involved, including Suter, Willy Adames and Daniel Norris, hosted an on-field conversation about environmentalism this past season. The organization is player-driven and peer-recruited. At a recent beach cleanup in the Dominican Republic, Dickerson was surprised and encouraged to see young Tampa Bay Rays superstar Wander Franco.

“I had heard through the grapevine that he was interested,” Dickerson says. “The education coordinator got ahold of him, and got ahold of his mom. But ultimately, it was Nelson [Cruz] who called and was like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna be doing this, why don't you come along?’ And sure enough, [Franco] was there with him.”

Dickerson believes in the power of athletes to model best practices — to make small but meaningful change in their communities while promoting sustainability to a broader audience. To inspire each other, and their legions of fans.

“Because scientists don't have the following or reach that professional athletes do,” he says. “It's being able to reach out to 400,000 followers on social media platforms and being able to to educate people about best behaviors.”

And he believes that players can force the industry itself to evolve — calling it a move that’ll come from within to make Major League Baseball more sustainable. But even he knows that’s an optimistic view of the situation. For one thing, individuals can be indifferent to the issues, hostile to change. And then there are corporate sponsors to contend with, legal battles and systemic inertia.

Besides, personal responsibility is important, but combating climate change requires a war that will be waged on a policy level.

“Individual action is not enough,” Suter says.

Hoffman would agree. He likens environmental purity to religion — individuals should strive for an idealized state, while understanding that sinning is inevitable. But corporations, on the other hand, can be held to a higher standard.

“They have more power,” he says. “With power comes responsibility.”

What MLB is working on now

Suter has gotten to know the people who work in sustainability at the MLB commissioner’s office through his recent years of activism. It has left him largely encouraged.

“They really care,” he says.

There are tangible examples of that in the many initiatives the league touts: 20 teams have switched to LED lighting in the past seven years, 12 ballparks have on-site gardens from which they source produce for concessions, the Minnesota Twins recycle rainwater for field irrigation and installed water bottle refill stations around the stadium, the San Francisco Giants have won the league’s Green Glove award a dozen times for leading the league in waste diversion. All 30 clubs are members of the Green Sports Alliance.

There are educational programs associated with the sport’s so-called jewel events and a community service program for league employees — all part of a commitment to “practicing responsible and socially conscious sustainability efforts.”

“Not only changing the ballparks over to be more energy efficient, more water efficient, but also hopefully spurring the fans to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can go to this ballpark and they're doing this for 35,000 people — recycling, in the case of the Giants and the Mariners at 92%, with only 8% going to landfill — maybe I can start to make change at home,’” says Paul Hanlon, MLB’s director of ballpark operations and sustainability.

“So not only making that operational change, but also hopefully spurring the fans to make change.”

It’s a worthwhile effort, certainly, but one that feels out of sync with the severity of the situation and need for immediate meaningful change.

MLB does not keep comprehensive data on its own carbon footprint or environmental impact. In 2018, the league provided all teams with access to software for tracking things like energy, water and waste. Twenty-three clubs, but not the commissioner’s office itself, have since made use of the system, which is entirely self-reported. And while it’s been useful for clubs to monitor their own trends — one team uncovered a water leak based on anomalous data — there isn’t an evaluative or actionable component yet. There are no immediate plans to implement numeric benchmarks for progress.

“I want to understand where we are, I want to get a few years of collecting that from everyone,” Hanlon says. “I think then we can understand OK, what goals make sense for what we're doing? And that is, that is the goal. Definitely.”

Baseball has power that extends beyond its immediate purview of playing fields and the stadiums that surround them. Despite frequent protestations of being apolitical, MLB’s money and influence in Washington present a profound opportunity — to push for meaningful change or, as Hoffman fears, hypocrisy.

“One area of very significant greenwashing is when companies make loud statements — ‘We care about climate change. We're gonna do something about it.’ — and then they lobby against climate policy in Washington,” he says.

“That's greenwashing. Because we need policy.”

Exhaustively tracking the money from MLB’s political action committee and the voting patterns of the recipients could be a worthwhile standalone project, but we can see some glaring contradictions from just a top-line analysis.

From 2019-20 — in 2021, MLB temporarily suspended political donations following the insurrection at the Capitol — Open Secrets tracked $127,000 donated to different federal candidates. Over 56% of that money went to Democratic candidates, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., received the most of any individual. Despite recently unveiling a package of “narrow environmental bills,” McCarthy has a lifetime score of just 3% on voting in favor of environmental issues, according to the League of Conservation Voters. In 2015, when he was the majority leader, for example, McCarthy wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post announcing his plans to oppose U.S. involvement in international efforts to combat climate change.

That year, MLB donated $5,000 to his campaigns.

What would impactful change look like? 2020 offers a hint

“When people talk about sustainability in sports leagues, a lot of the time, maybe they'll talk about recycling, maybe they'll talk about how their players did a tree planting program on the weekend. A lot of those things are pretty close to greenwashing,” says Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University in Canada.

“You're doing an action that looks nice, but is not really substantial. It’s not making a huge dent in your emissions in any way.”

What can make a huge dent is drastically limiting travel, like all the major sports leagues were forced to do in 2020 as a response to the pandemic.

In a study recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Wynes calculated the drop in carbon emissions per game for MLB, the NBA, NFL and NHL based on their specific schedule alterations, which amounted to significantly less travel across sports.

Travel accounts for about a quarter of the leagues’ total emissions — extrapolated from data from the NHL, which is the most transparent. But Wynes argues it’s an important area of consideration because air travel is inherently difficult to make more environmentally friendly.

“And no one else is really going to do it for you,” he says.

“So the leagues could kind of sit back and, this wouldn’t be advisable, but just wait. And eventually fans are going to start showing up to games in electric vehicles, because that industry is going to decarbonize through the efforts of other agents, and government, and so on. But air travel will not be like that. So as time goes on, that fraction is going to grow larger and larger for sports industries.”

Baseball has a built-in advantage already. Its multi-day series played against the same opponent naturally limit travel, but the regional schedule implemented in 2020 — where teams played only opponents in their own division and the corresponding geographical division in the opposite league — still resulted in a 22% drop in carbon emissions per game.

Cutting cross-country travel entirely might not be feasible from a fan enjoyment perspective, but the increasingly arbitrary division between the two leagues — especially if they become aligned in their use of a designated hitter — could provide an opportunity to draw up a more sustainable schedule. Rather than avoid them out of league allegiance, teams could play their neighbors as often as they play teams in their own division.

MLB is not currently considering anything like that.

The sustainability efforts led by Hanlon are focused exclusively on the ballpark operations. He sees concessions as the next frontier. Dickerson, of Players for the Planet, agrees — suites generate an incredible amount of food waste, he says — but he has encountered roadblocks from corporate sponsors in trying to swap even the dugout beverage options for reusable water bottles.

(“I think it's just that maybe like years ago a contract was put in place to guarantee we're gonna use this particular vendor,” Hanlon says. “So I think it's ... like ... it's a temporary barrier.”)

Improving the sustainability of stadiums is a necessary and worthy endeavor. But Wynes believes MLB could be aiming bigger precisely because radical action is what it’s going to take to stem the apocalyptic creep of climate change.

“It's hard to imagine a world in which humanity really gets their act together on climate change, which is a big and difficult task, and sports just keeps on trucking and doesn't alter anything,” he says.

To not recognize the urgency is a form of delusion or denial or solipsism. Even as a younger generation — more attuned to climate change and more terrified of what it means for the future — inhabits clubhouses, Suter encounters resistance to his environmentalism from people who just don’t care.

“I mean I hear the line all the time, ‘When these things go down I'm gonna be old or dead and gone, so I don't really care.’ I'm like, it might be sooner than you're thinking there,” he says.

“But that's a tough level of selfishness to combat because it's just so so selfish.”