- Text by Sam Haddad
- Photography by Courtesy of Stopp Oljeletinga unless otherwise specified.
When the skiers set off in the men’s 20km cross country World Cup race in the Norwegian resort town of Lillehammer in December 2022, everything looked as it should. Photographers and advertising hoardings lined the track, which cut through a forest of picturesque snow-cloaked trees. But as the competitors began to climb, they found their path blocked by five activists holding a banner saying “Stopp Oljeletinga!”, which translates as “Stop Oil Exploration.”
As the skiers tried to find a way around, some spectators intervened and moved the protestors to one side, but the action still made national news in Norway – a country where winter sports and fossil fuels sit together with increasing unease at the heart of national identity. The protest is thought to be the first of its kind at professional winter sporting events, which arguably have the most to lose from a warming planet. This season alone has seen several European World Cup races cancelled in Zermatt, Lech-Zürs and Garmisch-Partenkirchen due to rising temperatures.
“Skiers and snowboarders – especially the high-profile skiers, who are very famous in Norway – have been quite absent in the climate movement,” says Calum Macintyre, a Scottish snowboarder based in Norway, who filmed the Stopp Oljeletinga protest while his fellow activists blocked the race. “I don’t get it because we’re completely dependent on there being a stable climate in the future to do our sport. All skiers and snowboarders should be climate activists and they need to wake up because we’re running out of time.”
Like their UK sister group Just Stop Oil, Stopp Oljeletinga aren’t trying to address the entire environmental crisis through their protests, they just want to target fossil fuels, which they think is a more actionable target for politicians; Calum believes it would have a massive political impact if every famous skier in Norway came out against oil exploration.
“Norway is promoted as an Arctic destination, a snowy place with beautiful landscapes, but at the same time the Norwegian government is contributing to the Arctic melting as the country has one of the highest per capita fossil fuel exports in the world,” says Adam Formica, an American scientist living in Sogndal, who also took part in the demonstration. “Northern Norway is one of the fastest warming places in the world, and if we continue with business as usual, average temperatures will increase by up to six degrees by the end of the century compared to a median global warming of about three degrees.”
Along with the protest banner, the group drew a symbolic finish line in the snow (using carrot and beetroot juice to cause no negative impact on the environment) to symbolise a need to draw the line on fossil fuel development and extraction. Yet just last week, the Norwegian government announced it was planning to offer energy firms a record number of oil and gas exploration blocks in the Arctic.
Frida Steinbakk took part in the demonstration after witnessing the glaciers shrinking and winters getting shorter first hand. A Norwegian native, she’s spent time in the mountains all her life, but until recently her biggest worry was: “Will I still be able to snowboard in the future?”
But after attending meetings with Stopp Oljeletinga, she was shocked to realise the crisis is so much bigger than Norwegians losing their winters. “Now my main concern is shortage of food in the future,” she says. “The climate crisis hasn’t had the attention in the Norwegian media. We talk about shorter winters in the Arctic, but on our state channel they don’t mention the fossil fuel industry.”
Can Norway keep portraying itself as a ski-loving nation when it continues to invest in climate-wrecking oil and gas? Frida says Norwegians believe they can do both. “People have this idea that we’re doing something good. Since Ukraine, we’re Europe’s biggest energy supplier. We’re saying no to Russia, and we have the greenest oil in the world,” she says, adding that Equinor – Norway’s national energy company, which sponsors junior ski events and recently announced record profits – has “branded themselves as a renewable company so people have the impression they’re doing a lot, but their major investments are still going into fossil fuels.”
For Adam, there is malicious intent in the oil industry’s efforts to portray itself as green. “There are quite a few people in power who have a vested interest in seeing oil companies thrive,” he says. “The investments they’re making now are going to take 10-15 years to actually produce oil and are not going to solve the energy crisis that Europe is facing now. They’re trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of a dying industry.”
The action at Lillehammer, which didn’t get them arrested – though Adam was in court at the start of February for locking himself to an oil tanker last summer – started an interesting conversation in the country. A sports journalist on NRK (the Norwegian state broadcaster) published an article questioning Norway’s outrage over Qatar hosting the World Cup given its human rights record. If Norway were to host a World Cup, he asked, would countries in the global south, who are most susceptible to the climate crisis, also be outraged that Norway was sportswashing itself as a clean and responsible country?
The International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) is making efforts to reduce the organisation’s carbon footprint by grouping events closer together, encouraging train travel, and offsetting their emissions through rainforest conservation projects. However, Calum believes they can do a lot more. “They don’t understand the platform and political power they have as a sport at all,” he says.
Stopp Oljeletinga’s focus is to get FIS to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for an end to all new coal, oil and gas exploration and production, a fair phase-out of existing production, and a just transition for workers. So far, it’s been endorsed by the European Parliament and the World Health Organisation, along with the nation states of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, but no global sports federations.
“Reducing emissions to single events is a small drop in the ocean compared to the whole snowsports community finding out about this treaty and putting it higher up the political agenda,” says Calum, who believes that the COP process, which since 1992 has brought countries together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has been “captured” by Big Energy. “There were more fossil fuel representatives at COP 27 in Egypt than representatives of any single country, and there needs to be a new agreement that takes back control of the process.”
FIS has signed up to the UN Sports for Climate Action Network and promised to use their platform for climate action and education – something Calum says they have yet to do effectively. “There needs to be pressure put on FIS to use their political power against the fossil fuel industry. Endorsing this treaty as the first sports organisation in the world would be a very sensible and powerful thing to do, and it would encourage others to follow,” he says. Signing up to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would also make it harder for individual organisations to take fossil fuel sponsorship.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for FIS told Huck the organisation had not received information about the campaign nor a request to sign the treaty.
Stopp Oljeletinga also acknowledges the power that lies with athletes, and urges professional skiers and snowboarders to speak up against fossil fuels. “It’s not enough to repair your jackets and buy second hand stuff,” says Frida. “That’s good of course, and you should do it, but it won’t get us to the point where we need to be. We need political change.”
While there is still a long way to go, the group believes that pressure on oil companies from environmental groups is already showing signs of success. They reference the proposed Wisting project to develop the world’s northernmost oilfield in the Arctic, which had its investment decision postponed until 2026 (it was originally scheduled for December 2022). Meanwhile, a prominent oil and gas industry publication has warned that “the size and organisational ability of environmental activists” is a big deterrent when it comes to investing in North Sea oil and gas.
“[Hearing that] gives you a lot of energy and motivation,” says Calum. “The whole concept of nonviolent civil disobedience came from Norway, with Arne Næss, who was a climber and environmentalist. Norwegians need to think about how they’ll be seen in 50 years: as a nature-loving country with a ski culture, or a country that invested in more and more oil and [failed to] take the climate crisis seriously?”
Visit stoppoljeletinga.no to find out more.
Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.