Seán McCabe: World football’s first Climate Justice Officer

Seán McCabe is concerned.

Not about Bohemian FC’s next opponents, nor those who lie in wait in the weeks and months ahead.

It’s of a greater, invisible opponent — one that is discernibly shaping the present and threatens to leave an indelible mark on the future.

The opponent: the climate emergency.

“It’s already occurring […] You can’t trick the laws of thermodynamics […] There is no vaccine for the climate crisis,” McCabe told CNN Sport.

The issue is a very real and personal one for the Irishman.

He’s a resident of Phibsborough, a neighborhood in the north of Dublin, and a member of local club, Bohemian FC.

In January this year the top-flight Irish football team unveiled McCabe as their new signing.

Not the marauding midfielder or sharpshooter striker that some supporters might have desired. Instead, the club’s Climate Justice Officer — a newly created voluntary role and the first position of its kind in world football.

Community led sustainable practice

The inconvenient truth is that the global game is not immune to changing climactic conditions.

A study published last year by the Rapid Transition Alliance forecasts that in time extreme weather events and sea level rises caused by climate change will flood stadiums and playing fields.

Heatwaves and heat stroke will threaten the health of both players and fans alike.

The warnings are stark but simple yet powerful notion lies at the heart of McCabe’s ethos and role.

It’s a belief that local communities can play a key and participatory role in owning climate action and as a consequence bridge the inequality gap.

He speaks of how working in a hospice in Kolkata with some of the city’s poorest inhabitants left “an indelible mark,” while spending time in Sierra Leone shortly before Ebola hit exposed “the thirst for resources.”

“It [the climate crisis] can’t become about the future of children in developed countries when the present of people in developing countries is at risk.

“The world didn’t end up with rich areas and poor areas by accident — it’s man made,” he explains.

Such life-changing experiences were pivotal to McCabe pushing for the inclusion of human rights language when working on The Paris Agreement as a policy adviser for The Mary Robinson Foundation, the former President of Ireland.

It too formed the basis of his setting up of the TASC Climate Justice Center in Dublin of which he is now the Executive Manager.

But it was his recently published report titled, “The People’s Transition: Community-led development for Climate Justice,” which calls for community led sustainable practice, that prompted McCabe to see football as an untapped vehicle to drive such change.

“There’s not that many things left in the world that people are lifetime members of. There were unions and churches at one point but now I think football clubs are one of the only things that someone feels a part of them belongs to.”

A unique, progressive club

Bohemians isn’t not your average football club.

Member-owned since 1890, Dublin’s oldest team has gained a reputation for championing progressive social causes.

There’ve been unconventional, eye-catching announcements — the appointment of a poet in residence and the production of its own gin.

The message, however, throughout has been about the wider collective.

Last year, the club partnered with Amnesty International on the design of a new away shirt featuring an image of a family fleeing war and the message “Refugees Welcome.”

The collar featured the slogan “Love Football, Hate Racism.”

The shirt proved a viral sensation.

Orders poured in from more than 40 countries worldwide and an option to play in the jersey was made possible in EA Sports’ FIFA 21 video game.

And in March this year the club unveiled an away jersey featuring the Grammy-nominated band, Fontaines D.C., and the charity Focus Ireland, aimed at raising awareness of homelessness in Ireland.

Bohemians’ commitment to tackling climate change is no different.

Just this month it became the first Irish club to join the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework.

READ: Targeted by far right group, Türkgücü Munich looks to connect cultures

Bohemians’ Greta Thunberg?

Whilst, according to McCabe, the debate around the climate emergency has over the last decade, “stopped being about polar bears and started being about children,” doubters still remain.

Replies on social media to his appointment were largely unfavourable.

One showed a mock-up photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg in a Bohemians jersey, another criticism of the club pandering to woke-ology and peak hipsterism; Others, though, praised the forward-thinking role.

“You want people to challenge you. You want to try to move into the spheres where these conversations aren’t happening and that was a sure sign that we were doing that,” he explains.

“I am very humbled. It’s a very unique opportunity […] It’s in no way daunting to me. What’s much more daunting is the crisis itself.”

McCabe is under no illusions that whilst the scope for change is limitless, actions will speak louder than words.

“People are tired of just being advertised at […] We can differentiate between what’s real, what matters and something shiny.

“It’s genuinely about getting into the community and making change that people respond to.”

For now, exploratory discussions are underway as to how Bohemians can become an effective zero-waste club.

McCabe sees opportunities in mining the supply chains that flow into the game, pressing leaders to up their commitment to climate change and pushing sponsors to work with clubs to advance community-led sustainable initiatives.

“Imagine if you had a scenario where you had solar panels like Werder Bremen have on their stadium, but instead of selling it to fans, you used it to fight energy poverty in the immediate surrounds of the stadium,” he explains.

He also cites Scottish top-flight cub Hibernian — dubbed the Greenest Club in Scotland — as an example of a blueprint for success, with 100% of Hibs’ energy is from renewable resources. All single use plastics across catering have been removed; and environmental considerations are now at the heart of all commercial conversations.

And with over 100 European clubs signed up to the European Football for Development Network (EFDN), whose principle is based on clubs being “committed to their communities and social responsibilities,” the green shoots of engagement are slowly but surely emerging.

“The EFDN member clubs have well over half a billion followers on social media.

“We need football clubs to start mobilizing their social media to help their fans, because at the end of the day, clubs draw their legitimacy from their fans.

“It’s not about politicizing clubs. It’s about helping your fans move through this very serious transition that we have to move through and creating platforms for them to explain to decision makers the realities of their lives.”

READ: The sporting opponent that could beat every single athlete

“For the younger generation, sincerity matters”

Whilst McCabe is acutely aware of the current challenges that climate change presents, he believes it’s imperative that the considerations of future generations are at the forefront of climate justice thinking.

“For the younger generation now, sincerity matters a lot more to them than maybe it mattered to our generation.

“It’s really important that we at least have the same courage as the children.

He hopes clubs will mobilize behind the UN Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative and countries will sign the Declaration for Children, Youth and Climate Action to raise the voices of those on the front line of the global emergency.

Ultimately, though, it could be role models within the game who evolve to become the real vocal proponents of change.

Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford, who twice forced the UK government into a U-turn on policies to help feed children from low-income families, being one of those who has already skilfully appealed to and engaged a broad base of support.

“Young people are going to look up to those sports stars who really do put their head over the parapet,” says McCabe.

“He (Marcus Rashford) put his reputation on the line to try to do what was right by his community.

“There’s a real opportunity, particularly for footballers coming from countries where droughts and floods and severe storms are occurring most often to do what Marcus Rashford has done and highlight those dimensions of climate.”

READ: Manchester United star Marcus Rashford launches children’s book club

Vanguard of world football

McCabe, though, is under no illusions that if football is to be a “global leader” in climate justice, a collective effort will be needed across the board — one which he hopes can be led by the Dublin outfit.

“I think if we’re to really supercharge this going forward the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of information, the sharing of toolkits and resources to help clubs move forward will be so important.”

In the short-term, though, McCabe’s attention will focus on the planned redevelopment of Bohemians’ current ground, Dalymount Park.

It’s a project which he says provides a huge transformative opportunity for the club to apply its climate justice credentials both on and off the pitch.

“I’d love to be in a new stadium where you have a roof bedecked with solar panels and fans who are on board with climate action and have actually forgotten that it’s even happening.

“We want them to know that they are part of the battle for a fair and safe future for our children and grandchildren.

“But that they’re still watching a team lift the Premier Division title … potentially in a jersey made out of bamboo fabric!”