Tobacco companies were banned from Aussie sports. Fossil fuel outfits deserve the same

Woodside sponsors Fremantle in the AFL, while Santos sponsors the Wallabies.

Woodside sponsors Fremantle in the AFL, while Santos sponsors the Wallabies. Photo: Getty/TND

Weekend footy, concerts, art exhibitions, comedy shows – there’s no denying that sports and the arts are woven into our Aussie lifestyle. They unite us and shape our identity.

But climate change, driven by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas, poses a real threat to these community bonds.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed flooded music festivals, concerts cancelled due to bushfires, and sports matches halted by intense heat or bushfire smoke.

The irony? The logos of fossil fuel corporations, the culprits behind this climate chaos, are plastered on athletes’ jerseys, gallery walls and above festival grounds.

The Fremantle Dockers AFL team is sponsored by Woodside, which also sponsors Surf Lifesaving WA and its Nippers program.

Santos holds the naming rights of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest cycling race – the Santos Tour Down Under, which was affected by climate related weather when organisers had to cut the race short due to an extreme heatwave in 2018, and race routes were affected by the Black Summer bushfires in 2020.

Almost all of us understand climate change is worsening floods and fires in Australia.

Killer heat

But it is a little-known fact that extreme heat kills more people in Australia than all other extreme weather disasters – like floods, fires and major storms – combined.

By 2040, scientists estimate heatwaves in Melbourne and Sydney could reach highs of 50°C. Indeed, heatwaves are already becoming hotter, lasting longer and occurring more often. It will be impossible to safely play outdoor sports or attend outdoor events in these conditions.

Fossil fuel corporations try to distract us from these catastrophic environmental and health impacts through sponsorships. By sponsoring high-profile events such as sports teams or music festivals, they use their considerable financial power to gain social approval. It’s time to call this deceitful tactic out for what it is – greenwashing.

We have the power to change this. We can reject sponsorship from fossil fuel companies, kicking their money out of our beloved sports, arts and public events. We can say no to our favourite athletes and artists being used as walking billboards to buy our goodwill. We need to call time on fossil fuel sponsorship, just like we did with tobacco sponsorship in the 1990s.

F1 racing used to be full of tobacco sponsorships. Photo: Getty

Alternative sources of money

I know it can be done, because I was part of that big change. A small levy on tobacco was earmarked to do two things: Replace harmful sponsorship in sports and the arts with very healthy sponsorship, and create VicHealth – a world leading health promotion agency. And by the way, ‘the sky did not fall in’ on sponsorship support as was predicted by the tobacco companies.

Yes, money is needed, but there are alternative sources. Clean energy companies, ethical investments, and public backing can all help fill the void left by fossil fuel dollars. For example, Visit Victoria recently announced an exciting sponsorship deal with Netball Australia that will see more Tests played in our state and training camps held here.

When tobacco sponsorship was banned, some people argued that sports would collapse entirely without the financial investment of those big brands. This proved completely unfounded and our sporting codes have continued to flourish in the years since the ban.

Call time on fossil fuels

Ultimately, our planet’s and people’s health is more valuable than any sponsorship deal. So codes, clubs and organisations need to step up and call time on fossil fuels.

The Climate Council’s new code, Calling Time, proposes a way out. By adopting the code, organisations can cut ties with fossil fuel corporations and align their operations with the values of health, safety, and environmental sustainability.

Our idols can take a lead here, too – holding sports clubs and arts organisations accountable for their sponsorship choices, and helping to educate fans about why we need to ditch fossil fuels. They can help shift the goalposts on climate action. Because in Australia, athletes and artists aren’t just celebrities – they’re role models and captains of change.

Ditching fossil fuel sponsorship may feel like a big leap, but it won’t cause the world of sports and arts to crumble; instead, it will lead to a healthier society where we can all breathe easier.

Professor Rob Moodie is professor in Public Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. He was CEO of VicHealth from 1998 to 2007.

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