Climate change creates legal risks for sports organisations and directors, report


Climate change and extreme weather are already affecting the sports we love and putting the health of athletes at risk, leading to legal risks for sports organisations and directors, according to a new report from the Environmental Defenders Office and FrontRunners.

Sports, Climate Change and Legal Liability details recent impacts, including:

  • Bushfire smoke disrupting cricket matches and hospitalising players during the Black Summer fires;

  • Extreme heat harming players and spectators during Australian Open tournaments and shortening cycling’s Tour Down Under; and

  • Flooding damaging sports grounds and stadiums.

Sports climate advocacy organisation, FrontRunners, partnered with the lawyers at the Environmental Defenders Office to understand the implications of climate change for sports governance.

Environmental Defenders Office CEO David Morris said: “Most Sporting bodies around Australia are exposing themselves to significant legal and financial risks by failing to grapple with the impacts that climate change is having on players, spectators, officials, and infrastructure.

“These risks occur at all levels of sports administration and on numerous fronts. Our research found that sports administration bodies in Australia were lagging well behind counterparts in other countries and behind other sectors in Australia.

“At the time of publication, less than 1 per cent of sporting bodies surveyed mentioned climate change in their annual reports and only 6 per cent referred to climate change or sustainability in their strategic plans.

“At a time when the real-world impacts of climate change are being reported every day, these legal risks should be front and centre considerations from the field of play to the boardroom. Sports bodies must act quickly to address the risks that are mounting as climate change advances.”

The report looks at key liability risks to various stakeholders and the responses available to sporting organisations across five key areas:

  • player and spectator welfare

  • physical infrastructure

  • contract risk

  • director’s duties, and

  • reputational risk (from a lack of action, or sponsorship by coal, gas and oil companies)

FrontRunners Decarbonising Sport Lead and AFLW player Nicola Barr said: “Athletes have been speaking up for years on the impacts climate change and related extreme weather is having on the sports we love because they’ve had to deal with extreme heat, flooding, and bushfire smoke. “This report identifies the legal risks this could create for sports organisations and their directors. It also highlights the limited action most have taken to this point, and recommends actions that can be taken right now to reduce the risks and protect something most Australians love.”

Australian Cricketers Association CEO Todd Greenberg said: “Without safe conditions for athletes to compete in, we wouldn’t have sport to enjoy. This report will be a helpful tool in bringing this to the attention of the CEOs and directors of major sporting organisations, allowing us to have a conversation about what needs to be done.

“Previous reports have identified that as a summer sport, cricket will be among the hardest hit by climate change.

“We’ve already seen this play out with extreme heat having an impact on the health of cricketers, as well as bushfire smoke disrupting matches during the Black Summer fires.

“This is why it’s important that all we take action right across cricket to protect the players and the game we love.”

Sports lawyer Ben Ihle KC said: “From the perspective of legal risk, climate change poses an ever-apparent and increasing danger to sports and sports administrators.

“The bases of liability are easy to appreciate. They are founded on well-established statutory, contractual, and common law principles of legal responsibility.

“Sporting organisations and infrastructure operators who fail to acknowledge and address those legal risks are leaving themselves open to suits brought by athletes, spectators, and even commercial partners.”

The report also maps the current engagement with climate risk of 314 major sporting organisations around the country, from the NRL, AFL and Cricket Australia, to Water Polo Australia, Surfing Australia and Golf Australia.

The report found that as of September 2023:

  • only three sporting bodies mentioned climate change in their annual reports (less than 1 per cent of all bodies surveyed),

  • 19 referred to climate change or sustainability in their strategic plans (6 per cent of bodies), and

  • nine issued guidance or publications on their website on climate change or sustainability (less than 3 per cent of bodies).

FrontRunners CEO Emma Pocock said: “Sports bodies are lagging behind other parts of our society in meeting the challenges of climate change, but there are ample opportunities for them to catch up.

“Sport can and must act quickly to turn things around. As a start, all sporting organisations and clubs must commit to eight impactful actions.

“These include actually implementing climate change policies, ensuring they develop and implement policies that protect players, spectators and officials from extreme weather, review risks to physical infrastructure from extreme weather, and ensure adequate insurance.”

/Public Release.