IWD 2022: Recognising Aussie female athletes in the climate space

The UN's theme for International Women's Day this year is 'Changing climates: Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow' and aims to recognise the contribution of women and girls who are leading the charge on climate change action.

We wanted to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution that Australian female athletes have in creating a more sustainable future by profiling some of the incredible work of some athletes in the climate space.

As surfer Belinda Baggs says (profiled below), "many sporting stars are heroes to their community -- we all need to use our voices and start talking about the issue -- making a stand and getting the broader audience onboard."

Daisy Bateman, AFLW, North Melbourne

North Melbourne's first ever AFLW draft pick, Daisy Bateman, has joined the AFL for Climate Action Movement (AFLP4CA), led by ex-North players Jasper Pittard and Tom Campbell, contributing her expertise to the cause.

As a videographer, her role in the initiative involves applying her video skill set and knowledge to amplify the message of the climate action group. Last year, this included making a video for the AFLP4CA, which represented more than 260 AFL men's and women's players, who want to do more to tackle climate change.

"It's a pretty cool role to play," she says. "I get to meet different AFL players in the same space as me -- AFL and AFLW alike -- that all have kind of the same interests as me and are really passionate about the environment, which I think is really cool".

The 22-year-old says that getting involved in climate action can feel daunting but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes, it's just about joining organisations or movements. "They [athletes and sporting communities] just have to join the group and listen and learn about the environment because there's a lot to learn, which I think is the best part of the Climate Action Group".

She also says it's about doing the one-percenters in our everyday lives, which like in footy, can add up to making a huge difference, on and off the field.

"A one percenter to me means that you kind of do the little things that you can do to enhance the environment," she says. "So, turning your lights off when you leave your house or in any private workplace, not taking plastic bags to the shopping centre or taking reusable bags or boxes to the supermarket."

"Just the little things that you're doing in your everyday life that can easily be changed. It's making those changes first...But it's, again, comes back to that education, right? You know, 'how can I help?' And once people know how they can help, it makes it a lot easier."

Rachael Haynes, Vice-Captain Australian Women's Cricket Team

Rachael Haynes is one of many top cricketers in the country involved with the movement Cricket for Climate, spearheaded by men's test captain Pat Cummins.

After being inspired by The Cool Down, an athlete-led campaign calling for urgent action on the climate crisis, Haynes says cricketers came together to ask how the fight against climate change could be more specific to their sport. They also wanted to "really be leaders in our sport, and try and bring together lots of different stakeholders, but also actions that will hopefully bring about some real change," she says.

The five-time world champion notes one of the main initiatives, which they announced earlier this year, was the installation of solar panels into local community clubs. This, she says, was "something that the players are supporting to help the clubs, so they're not out of pocket to make that transition to renewable energy."

"That's probably just one small step and one small initiative, but it's a part of a much broader ambition around getting people thinking a little bit more about what impact they're having individually."

The 35-year-old wants to use her profile to help advocate for change. Especially for future generations. During the 2019-20 Australian bushfires, she had to stop playing while at a Sydney club because the smoke became a health hazard. "That moment really hit home to me that, you know, climate change is going to have a huge impact on our lives. And it already is."

"You'd hate for it to be catastrophic or to the point where it just gets too late. So, that's not a playing experience that I'd like for my son. Hugo is only four months old at the moment, but in time, I want him to be able to run around outside and enjoy playing sport...without it being a health hazard for him."

"I think we've just got an amazing opportunity in front of us to try and do something about it and have a positive impact on our future."

Amy Steel, former netballer, Australian National Team

Amy Steel suffered heatstroke following a netball match played in nearly 40 degree celsius heat in rural Victoria, over six years ago. Hospitalised after collapsing, the effects of the condition ultimately cut her career short.

"Since what happened to me, [it] kind of woke me up to the reality that this is a climate emergency," she notes. "It's happening now. It's not something in the future."

Since then, the dual premiership player for the Queensland Firebirds and Melbourne Vixens became heavily involved in the climate space. This included working with the Sports Environment Alliance (SEA), which aim to protect sporting culture for future generations, FrontRunners, a movement designed for athletes to be part of the climate change solution, and EcoAthletes, which help athletes to become climate leaders.

"Sports [Environment] Alliance mostly works with clubs and communities to help give them the tools that they need to start thinking about how to be more sustainable in their operations. And that works from grassroots organisations to community clubs, all the way up to major venues like the MCG."

"With EcoAthletes and FrontRunners, they're both pretty similar in terms of using athlete voices to bring about change...And part of my role there is a do a lot of education for different up-and-coming athletes and also clubs and organisations about 'what is climate change', 'climate science', 'what does it mean?' and 'what are the risks and opportunities?"

Steel says sporting clubs can be vehicles to talk about these questions and answer them safely with peers and normalises them so that climate action doesn't feel like "a polarising issue" but rather "something we're all facing together".

"Let's just knuckle down to try and solve them as quickly as we can."

Belinda Baggs, Surfer

Experienced surfer Belinda Baggs is the Co-Founder and Director of Surfers for Climate, a sea-roots movement dedicated to positive climate action. The initiative started when two years ago, she helped rally tens of thousands of surfers across Australia to paddle out to protect coastlines from the threat of oil drilling on the Great Australian Bight. "I saw the passion from the paddle outs and knew we needed to transform this into positive climate action," says Baggs.

"The ocean is a fragile ecosystem that is affected by even the slightest climate impacts. Surfers experience these changes daily, many of which we don't even realise are caused by a warming planet and rise in co2," the 2000 Australian Professional Longboard Circuit Champion notes.

"Slight erosion all the way through to marine heatwaves and ocean acidification affects the waves and more importantly the marine ecosystem. We want to connect the dots, so ocean lovers across the globe activate in order to continue riding waves in thriving oceans and protect the one thing we're all reliant on across the globe- healthy oceans."

In recognising that climate action can come in many different forms, she says Surfers For Climate aims to provide "avenues for everyone to comfortably engage in creating a better future. From choices in your own home to where your money is invested, how you vote and front line activism all makes a positive impact."

For surfers, she says this also includes addressing problems within the culture of the sport, including honouring, learning and respecting the True Locals, the First Nations peoples and their connection to culture and Country.

"Surfers encompass a big spectrum of society, and together as a movement, we can implement solutions and demand positive climate action creating big impact."

Kiera Rowe, Basketballer, Sydney Uni Flames

Kiera Rowe is a young basketball star who believes athletes have a role to play in climate action and using their platforms to encourage positive change.

"I think as athletes, especially female athletes - we're working really hard to build our personal brands at the moment. And we know we can get messages across to the community a little bit easier than some other people might be able to," the 23-year-old says. "You can look at something like climate change and the impact it has on sport, and you know, push education about the climate crisis."

Rowe says that climate change is creating more heatwaves, increases in natural disasters and more extreme weather events, which is impacting sports. Despite playing an indoor sport, she says the effects can be seen for basketballers. In the 2019-20 Australian bushfire crisis, over a week of her training had to be cancelled due to smoke inside the stadium and she says, moving forward, her sport is getting more affected by extreme heat.

When it comes to the individual effort to help tackle this, she says, "Just do whatever you can, like nobody's perfect. But all the little things add up and if everyone starts doing just bit by bit, it does all add up."

Two things she says the sporting community can do is reduce single-use plastics and focus on reducing food wastage, which is a major problem in the climate crisis. "I think that's another big thing that is super easy to adjust to. Make sure you eat everything in your fridge before you go out for more".

For Rowe, the little things we could all be doing can add up to a big difference and athletes can be at the forefront of promoting and encouraging that positive change.

Renee Garing, AFLW, Geelong Cats

Renee Garing, an AFLW player with the Geelong Cats, became involved in the climate fight after signing The Cool Down.

"Climate change is an issue that is really important for us to be discussing and I'm actually a schoolteacher alongside playing AFLW, so it's something that we're trying to educate not only ourselves but also future generations about," the 33-year-old former netballer says.

She said when the AFLPA shared The Cool Doon initiative with her playing group and she saw an opportunity to make a stand and be part of the positive change, she put her hand up. Importantly, for Garing, it's also about creating meaningful dialogue where change can spark from.

"It's a letter and people sign that but it's also the conversations that can come up around that and people sharing it on social media and other platforms to get others involved as well," she says. "And talking about these issues to see what can we be doing around sustainability in our own lives, our daily lives and then also club choices and the AFL more broadly."

For Garing, it's about having an awareness of the crisis and then participating in on-going conversations that given "this is a reality and this is the future" ask the question "what can we do to help play a role in hopefully seeing some positive changes in the future?"

Lizzie Welborn, Ironwoman

Lizzie Welborn's passion for the ocean is obvious. The Ironwoman, who qualified for her first professional series at age 16 and has been competing ever since, lives her life in and around the water.

Naturally, she has enormous respect and deep care for the ocean which manifests itself in big ways and small ways.

Welborn is part of Ocean Decade Australia and is another of the over 450 athletes who signed up to The Cool Down and believes that athletes across the country have a huge role to play for the future of sport and the planet.

"For me, I often think about how, in a world affected by climate change, a lot of sports won't be able to occur. It'll be too hot or too dangerous to actually compete in them. Or maybe, in a sport like mine, where we're at the beach, there's too many severe weather events, the beaches might be destroyed."

Closer to home Welborn has championed a sustainability program at her surf club, Newport, on the northern beaches of Sydney, and works with Take 3 For The Sea, to help educate and inform surf clubs about how they can take care of the beaches they call home, particularly when it comes to plastic pollution.

"It's funny, because climate change is so hard to see. There haven't really been things where I've been at the beach and thought this is climate change. But I have in terms of plastic pollution, like, that's very easy to see."

"So every bit of plastic I see on the beach that's been littered there, that's contributed to climate change as well.

For the 23-year-old environmental science student, the connection between sport and climate action is obvious and she knows that sport has the power to create change.

"I just think there's a massive opportunity for sport to make a big statement about climate change. Sport, as I said, it's what brings people together."

"Sport is filled with communities of like-minded people. And if we can get just a few of those people to see how easy it is to make a positive impact on our environment, then it will just flow from there."

Jackie Naracott, Skeleton racer

It's an easy question for Jackie Naracott to answer.

"My favourite track is St. Moritz in Switzerland, and it's naturally made by hand every single year, they carve it out of a box of snow," she explains. The track is the birthplace of her sport, skeleton racing. But it, just like so many other sports, particularly winter ones, are not exempt from the effects of climate change.

"The warmer the world gets, the less chance we have that that track will exist because the glaciers and all that melting and even, there's been a couple of years, where the last race before COVID hit, the ice temperature read +0.3. The ice shouldn't be reading that temperature. The thing was melting before our eyes and that's the best track in the world."

Climate change is already making its presence known in sports like skeleton.

"I think it's making it a little bit more unpredictable, we don't really know how much snow we're gonna get, which just gets in the way for us to be honest. But it's also making tracks more expensive to upkeep because the warmer it is, the higher they have to turn up the refrigeration systems, which means more energy, also more chemicals that are then used to keep the ice." Naracott says.

Warmer weather, even in traditionally cool places, also contributes to a short season being made even shorter. Climate change poses existential questions for all of us but particularly winter sports. But Naracott's climate activism doesn't just come in the form of being a winter Olympian.

The Queenslander knows that Australia is experiencing extreme weather conditions across the spectrum. And as a sporting mad nation, it is only natural for Naracott, and other Australian athletes, to do their part and use their platform.

"I think particularly the NRL stars, AFL stars, and netballers and all those people who have a massive platform, kids listen to us. Whether we want to be role models or not, we are which I think is kind of cool at least from my point of view. And they look to us to see what we're doing and how we're getting involved."

"It's the little everyday things that we particularly as Aussies, we hold sports so dear. And if that is going to disappear, then part of our cultural and national identity disappears with it."

Alex Chidiac, footballer, Melbourne Victory

For footballer Alex Chidiac, a global game has global impacts. That means feeling the effects of climate change both at home and away.

From youth national team tours to China where games were played while weather apps told players the pollution and humidity in the air was too dangerous to be outside, to a match like the one she played most recently in the A-League Women where the heat and humidity made it "really difficult to breathe".

The ALW is currently one of a number of leagues currently experiencing the ramifications of more extreme weather events caused by climate change.

"At the end of the day, it's going to affect everybody, and it's going to affect our sport. I think you look at the floods that have just happened, games get canceled, pitches are completely ruined, sport is not going to be able to happen," she says.

While individual players can obviously make individual changes, collective action is most powerful, and the 23-year-old sees the roles of clubs and leagues as important in the wider role sports has to play in climate activism.

"I would love to see changes within clubs. Taking away plastic bottles and being a bit more conscious about waste within the club. And looking at the uniforms as well, and all those kinds of things. I think it would be great if clubs took a bit of a stand with all of that, and just educated players on how they can use their platform to spread that message to whoever's following them."

Chidiac is buoyed by the initiatives of overseas clubs and leagues whether it be reducing single-use plastics, creating kits out of recycled materials, or stadiums like Austin FC's which have been built with sustainability and the environment in mind.

Already well aware of the impact she can make as a footballer through her work with Common Goal and Moving The Goal Post, starting and continuing the conversation around climate action is a no brainer for Chidiac.

"I noticed that I can make a small impact being a footballer and kind of lending my hand out whenever I need to, and I saw the impact that that makes. So I think that's just something that's always been part of the values that I was brought up in."

"I kind of want to be part of that change in any way possible, even if it's a small way, hopefully it encourages more and more people to get on board."

Sarah Stewart, Paralympian, wheelchair basketball

Intersectionality has to be at the core of the climate action movement. While the UN's theme directly addresses gender, intersectionality goes beyond just that. Three-time Paralympic medallist and former Australian Glider, Sarah Stewart, knows that without an intersectional approach, any solutions conjured will forget large percentages of the population.

"It's often the intersection of discrimination and disadvantage that makes any kind of issue that much worse for people who have compounding effects. So I think particularly for all women all over the world, climate change presents a pretty massive issue."

"Any aspect of it that you think of that harms, like how it's affecting people's health or access to food or where they live or where they work, you think about how that's compounded again by the discrimination that women generally face out in the world, and people with disabilities face that again. So if you're a woman with disabilities it's kind of all compounded even more."

Stewart has always been filled with wonder and awe at life on earth and the environment. Starting from this place, she has moved through life with the environment at the front of her mind whether it be in her garden, composting, or her decision to become vegan, or even where her money is invested.

While these individual actions are important and necessary, Stewart remembers learning in the 80s that real solutions to global crises require everyone.

"I think that's probably what I found really interesting about the environment movements when I was growing up. It was a realisation that the whole world is interconnected. You need solutions that involve everyone."

"A big thing in the 80 particularly was CFCs and the effect they were having. And it was that sort of realisation that it doesn't matter where they're emitted, because it's going to affect everyone worldwide, so we need global solutions.

"And I think that's the exact same thing with carbon and climate change now, it doesn't matter who's emitting it, we need global solutions that have the input of everyone and how it's affecting everyone."

Everyone includes sports stars who not only have platforms but are more accessible than ever before.

"I think it's important for athletes to be informed and be able to express their concern. And also probably to try and model different ways you can live that could be a solution."