‘Team Climate’ Looks Back on Sochi Winter Olympics Experiences

Olympic emblem

Five Yale University graduate students recount the successes, and also a few frustrations, in their Winter Olympics campaign to increase awareness of climate change impacts on winter sports.

As the final piece in a series of first-hand reports leading up to and during their climate change communications experiences in Sochi, Russia, five “Team Climate” members recount their lessons-learned and experiences … along with a few “coulda/shoulda” thoughts about their deep dive into the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Yale Forum: What surprised you most about the experience?

TOM OWENS: It was surprising how many athletes responded to our request for their personal stories around climate change. Given that many of these athletes are professionals who depend on mountain communities, they see first-hand when the winter sports industry takes a financial and environmental hit first hand.

I was surprised to see how well organized the official Olympics venues were overall. The Russian volunteers helped a lot there, making sure events ran smoothly and visitors were properly guided. At a cost of 51 billion dollars, there may have been a better way to support the Russian economy and its citizens.

I think it was great to see in-depth media coverage around the weather conditions and how this related back to climate change. We were surprised to see the recent Waterloo University report concluding that as few as six of the 19 future Winter Olympic sites would have suitable winter conditions in the future. And Sochi was the most vulnerable site on the list. The media responded well to this report and related this back to the challenging snow conditions at the Sochi Games.

Yale Forum: What do you think were the most significant tangible accomplishments of your efforts, either on your own growth and education, or in terms of helping to “make a difference” on climate change? Or both?

BO UUGANBAYAR: Through our efforts, we reached outlets extending to more than 315 million people through six op-eds from athletes and 25 articles directly covering and 40 articles citing our stories. We learned a great deal both professionally and personally through this experience. We learned the ins and outs of starting a campaign from scratch and developed great mentors along the way. Planning, prioritizing, and managing tasks, thinking creatively, maneuvering around challenges and roadblocks, communicating clearly, maintaining our growing network of partners and mentors, and tailoring our writing for different audiences — we honed these skills throughout the semester, and we have learned from each other tremendously.

Group photo
Yale graduate students’ ‘Team Climate,’ from left to right: Kaylee Weil, Bo Uuganbayar, Diana Madson, Tom Owens, and Taylor Rees.

Yale Forum: What advice would you share with a future group of graduate students attempting a similar effort, perhaps at the next Winter Olympics in South Korea?

KAYLEE WEIL: I think that one of the greatest successes of Team Climate is the impact our experience has had and could have on the greater Yale community. We went into this project with the hope that our work would promote a similar culture of wide-reaching projects among other Yale students. It was important for us to bring back the knowledge and assurances that a project of this scale is actually possible.

To a future group of graduate students attempting a similar effort, I would advise them not to underestimate themselves. At first, our group was trying to go through mainstream efforts to contact athletes, for instance through public relations managers. That didn’t get us far. Thinking outside the box did: We sent every single Team USA Olympian a personalized Facebook message. By contacting them in a non-mainstream, unofficial way, it made our group more approachable. We appealed to them as young people striving to make a difference and needing their help. That initial message blast really helped get our project off the ground.

It’s really important to note that we didn’t do this alone. Far from it. Our group of five wouldn’t have existed had it not been for our professor, Gordon Geballe, believing in us. From that stemmed funding, networking, and brainstorming. Our partners were invaluable to the success of our project, and we’re so thankful for all the time and effort that went into making it possible.

I would urge a future group of students to take full advantage of the resources all around them. For example, while we were in Sochi, we sent out a blast to the Forestry & Environmental Studies School community asking them to promote our posts on Facebook, tweet about us, and send out e-mails to friends and family. The effect was huge! We had several prolific online posters who really helped boost our online presence and disseminate our materials. I also think that the five of us who created Team Climate are now great resources for any future students attempting a similar effort, and I speak for the whole team when I say we’d be happy to consult on a project and share best (and worst) practices.

Yale Forum: At any time in your trip, did you find language or “culture” to be a problem, an impediment? At any time, did you have a sense of an athlete’s feeling your efforts might be “distracting from the real business” of the Olympics? Did you encounter any substantive objections — what we might here call climate “skepticism” — about the issue generally?

TAYLOR REES: We were met with some unexpected challenges in Sochi, and language clearly was one of them. On one hand, the Olympic games provided the forgiving space of being an international community, with spectators from around the world. While many of the Sochi volunteers did not speak English, they were always happy to help us find someone who did. We also encountered some incredibly kind people who helped us along the way, from cab drivers to airport volunteers, who took extra time to translate for us and ensure we were taken care of. A true blessing! However, most of the Olympics spectators were actually Russian, and we frequently got the sense that knowing the language beyond “please” and “thank you” would have been appreciated.

The athletes we worked with also went above and beyond to contribute their thoughts and experiences, even during the Games. We were actually most surprised about their level of engagement. Overall, we tried to keep our outreach to them at a minimum during the days leading up to their events, but most of the 16 athletes we worked with were willing to field more questions, or re-tweet our stories from Sochi.

While there were a few persistent climate skeptics who would comment on our articles or blogs, we tried our best to maintain focus. Our project had a specific goal, one that took place over just a two-week window, and we didn’t have the time to engage with the typical objections to the correlations and arguments we were building.

The main negative reaction that came our way was the same “hypocrisy” argument used against all those who speak about the connection between winter sports and climate change, given that these sports and the industries that support them can be carbon-intensive. While this is very valid, we stood by our conviction that it’s even more important than to give voice to these concerns, do so transparently, and build upon the strength that this community of athletes has to offer the climate change discussion. Ultimately, we understand that Team Climate is part of a much larger movement in climate change communication, one that continues to have to find common ground or engage with skeptics in meaningful and productive ways.

Yale Forum: What would you do differently — more than, less than, better? — if you could do it all over again? What are the three “take-home” messages from your experience?

DIANA MADSON: The success of the climate change media campaign exceeded our wildest expectations. But there clearly are some things we would do differently if we could do it all over again. In particular, we would have applied in time for media passes. It was not until August 2013 that our campaign was off the ground, and that was weeks after the final deadline to apply for media passes. Despite multiple pleas and conversations, the US Olympics Committee would not grant us media passes. With them, we could have had access to the media center in Sochi and free entry into events. Lesson learned: start early.

In terms of our major takeaways, we learned that 1) you need passionate spokespeople; 2) you get more bang for your buck with traditional media; and 3) be creative.

1) Passionate spokespeople. What was unique about Team Climate was that our message came from Olympians. Winter sports athletes are seeing the impacts of climate change in mountain landscapes around the world — our job was to get their stories out in the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, those athletes most passionate about the issue gave the most to the campaign. They were eager to do interviews and help spread stories on social media, and they were incredibly responsive throughout the Games. This makes a world of a difference.

2) Traditional media. Our initial ideas for the campaign centered on social media, particularly the idea of creating a viral video. Before we were too far along, Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication recommended that instead of basing our campaign in the social media space, we instead target traditional media. We could always spread the traditional media stories later on through social media. So we switched gears to focus on op-eds in prominent newspapers. Collaborating with athletes, we got six op-eds published in major newspapers (USA Today, Boston Globe, The Guardian, etc.). When we got home and started analyzing the numbers, we were astonished to find that these outlets reach 315 million people, and almost 314 million came from the traditional media sources! Only a million came from social media.

3) Creativity. Climate change communications have traditionally been framed as scientific discussions. That is certainly an essential angle, but it is also important to reach audiences who do not follow science. We took the route of targeting people who follow sports. Our campaign would not have reached nearly as many people if we had not taken this unusual angle.

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