Wallabies great David Pocock says sport must step up to tackle climate change

David Pocock never shirked a challenge when playing for the Wallabies, and he has been equally fearless when it comes to making a stand on environmental issues. David Pocock

LONDON -- David Pocock never shirked a challenge when playing for Australia's rugby union team, the Wallabies, and he has been equally fearless when it comes to making a stand on environmental issues.

Now the 32-year-old is calling on fellow athletes to use their profile to help to bring sport up to speed in the increasingly urgent race to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Interviewed for the first of eight editions of a new BBC podcast Emergency On Planet Sport released on Friday, Pocock said sport could not insulate itself from the effects of climate change and called on sportsmen and women to urge action.

"Our futures are at stake and if we don't up our ambition and start to deal with this as the emergency the scientists are telling us it is, then we're cooked," Zimbabwe-born Pocock, arrested in 2014 for chaining himself to a digger during a coal mining protest, told the podcast.

"I think there's some sort of moral obligation for everyone to be playing their role."

Pocock recalls being told at the time of his arrest that his playing contract would be ripped up if there was any repeat.

He understands why athletes are reluctant to break the mould and speak out, partly because their sports have large carbon footprints and they risk biting the hand that feeds them.

"I think there's a fear that speaking about these issues will somehow detract from their sport or take their concentration away or open them up to criticism," Pocock, who retired from rugby last year, said.

"I've found it's provided me balance. I know I'm engaged with issues which ultimately are a lot bigger than sport."

Pocock said rugby had a duty to the Pacific Islands, whose production line of talent has embellished his sport.

"Climate change is an existential threat for many of the Pacific Islands and their leaders have been calling on nations like Australia to up their ambition and show leadership," said Pocock, whose wife, Emma, runs Frontrunners, an organisation that helps athletes to engage in environmental issues.

"Sport is at its best when it's challenging society, to face up to these bigger issues, and there is a very long and proud history of sport doing that."

Last year Rapid Transition Alliance, an organisation calling for urgent action to alleviate climate change, published a detailed report Playing Against The Clock. The report said within 30 years a quarter of English football grounds would be at risk from flooding every season, one-in-three Open Championship golf courses would be eroded by sea levels rising, and Indian cricket grounds could become unusable because of drought.

COVID-19 has hit sport hard, but British Association for Sustainable Sport chief executive Dr Russell Seymour said that climate change is as big an issue but is not prompting the same debate.

Like Pocock, he said that athletes should feel free to voice their concerns about climate change.

"Many are passionate but who don't feel qualified to speak out," Dr Seymour told the podcast.

"You don't have to be a scientist, you just have to believe that we need to do something a bit different."

High-profile football players such as AS Roma defender Chris Smalling, Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin and Southampton midfielder Oriol Romeu have engaged in environmental issues.

Romeu said that more players should make their voices heard.

"I remember when I was young, and a football player would come and chat to us, I would be with eyes open and remember everything he says," he said.

"We are in a strong position that if we can take advantage of that, we can be really helpful in those important issues."