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MLB is woefully unprepared for climate change

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The Somerset Patriots’ image will be seen over and over.

MLB: SEP 03 White Sox at Royals Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A phrase has entered the cultural lexicon over the past decade or so, “Shocked but not surprised,” meaning that I’m looking or reading or hearing something that should really shake you up, but it’s expected. In that vein, looking at the pictures of the Somerset Patriots’ ballpark being underwater last week, or hearing about John Sterling’s close call on the drive home from a game, I’m shocked but not surprised.

My job — for one more week! If anyone is hiring, I’m looking! — is to evaluate the risks of catastrophe brought on by climate change. It means that I get to see modelling and academic reports about just how bad things are going to get in the next 20, 30, 50 years, and it’s why I can say that I don’t think baseball is well-prepared for the increased frequency and severity of disaster that Anthropocene climate change will bring.

In my opinion, there are three main symptoms of climate change that will affect baseball more than other sports: heat, air quality, and flooding. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where we’ve seen two of the hottest heatwaves in the region’s history just this summer. A total of 810 people died in British Columbia during the hottest period of the summer. Baseball, at least at the highest levels, can protect their players against some elements of heat, with proper air conditioning, hydration, etc.

However, extreme heat poses a risk to spectators, and the massive power demands of stadiums stresses grids at peak times. Even after a decade or so of energy-efficient retrofits, the average MLB stadium uses about 30 million kilowatt hours over a full season, about as much as 3,000 single-family homes in the same span. Energy infrastructure in the US is relatively vulnerable compared to other OECD countries, especially in high population states like California and Texas. Energy capacity is already strained in certain states, and the additional demand created by massive steel-and-concrete cauldrons as regions warm only make that worse.

Related to worsening heat levels is air quality. Heat waves and wildfire drastically increase the amount of particulate in the air, and because we all breathe the same air, wildfire in California, Oregon, Ontario, and Alberta can lower the AQI in New York, which of course is exactly what happened this summer, as the city saw its worst quality marks in the last seven years.

Summer Entertainment Returns To New York City Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The official recommendation when air quality is that bad is to simply limit time outdoors ... which doesn’t really gel with a sport that’s played outdoors. Continual exposure to air this bad carries a host of long-term health risks, once again affecting both players and spectators.

But perhaps the most dramatic, visible and immediate impact climate change will have on the sport is flooding. Flooding comes from three main sources: rising sea levels from polar ice melting, swollen rivers and watersheds as glaciers within a country melt earlier and deeper, and the effects of worsening and more frequent storms, which is what we saw last week as the tail of Hurricane Ida struck the east coast. Polar ice and storm damage tends to affect coastal areas, while in-country glacier loss and swollen rivers affects inland areas more.

FEMA keeps fairly updated flood maps that show current risk to property, usually modelled on annual flood risk from hurricanes or other weather surges, rather than projected sea level rise — we’ll get to that in a moment.

Miami, San Francisco and Washington are just three cities whose stadiums are effectively always at risk of flood or water surge. But again, it’s not just the coasts exposed to this kind of risk:

Cincinnati, in the heart of the Rust Belt, faces greater risk of flood than Oracle Park in the Bay Area! The Ohio River includes among its tributaries waters sourced in the Allegheny mountains and Tygart Valley, and is one of the most at-risk rivers in the entire US for annual swelling.

And then of course, there’s the systemic catastrophe that rising sea levels present. Modelling from Harvard and Climate Central gives us some insight into how much a four-to-five foot rise in sea level — more than a third lower than the IPCC’s estimate for end-of-century rise — would affect the coastal cities of the US, and the ballparks we love to build near the water:

Using a more conservative estimate than what the IPCC projects, Oracle Park mostly disappears. Petco Park, Yankee Stadium, both Florida stadiums ... ditto. I couldn’t find modelling in this report on Citi Field, Nationals Park, or RingCentral Coliseum, but given their exposure to overland flooding and geographic similarities to at-risk parks, you’re looking at a third of MLB underwater.

There’s also smaller, less-existential risks baseball faces. Boring insects, usually killed off by cold winters in the wooded areas in the Northeast and Midwest, face less annual culling because winters are generally milder, and present a very real threat to the wood MLB needs for its bats. MLB umpires are less accurate as temperature rises.

What can MLB do about all of this? All stadiums have implemented some kind of energy efficiency programs — Target Field in Minnesota uses an almost entirely self-contained water system, Fenway Park uses solar power — but focusing on efficiency, while helpful, just doesn’t do enough to offset the league’s massive carbon impact and the global impact of a consumer economy.

First, you have to start with the acute issues, and that includes much better disaster planning. John Sterling could have actually died on Wednesday night, and Michael Kay talked on his radio show about how he was forced to spend the night at Fordham University because it was too dangerous to be driving. Now, Sterling isn’t a direct employee of the Yankees, but the team and its partners need to adopt better policies around disasters. Shelter-in-place orders — i.e. staying at the Stadium overnight — or mandatory work-from-home when you know that dangerous weather is possible keeps your employees safe, and you will never regret being more cautious than government when it comes to climate disaster.

The more macro approach MLB can take is using its platform to advocate for climate action, endorsing the Paris Agreement and adopting emission reduction strategies that are more aggressive than the Agreement. In other words, leading by example.

Now, is this enough? Nope. Will our climate continue to degrade? Yep. It’s very difficult to not be cynical or despondent about the state of the planet and the apparent inevitability of it all. But leadership is needed in a crisis, and you can’t play baseball in three feet of water. What we saw at the ballpark in Somerset County and the stories we heard about New York City last week should be galvanizing moments for a sport that doesn’t like to get involved in any real issues.

But climate change is existential — it threatens all of us, whether we want to believe it or not. The very fundamental parts of baseball, having a park to play in and a bat to swing, the freedom to sit outdoors without worrying about an increasingly toxified atmosphere, are at risk and last week showed us how woefully unprepared the governors of the game are. It’s time to do better.