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World in Disunion

Climate change and the Rugby World Cup.

11 October 2019

As Typhoon Hagibis, predicted to be the biggest typhoon of the year, bears down on Japan this weekend, causing the matches between England v France and New Zealand v Italy to be cancelled, the effects of climate change are becoming ever clearer.

To coincide with the Rugby World Cup, a new report has highlighted how three of the smallest countries taking part, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, are under threat because of the aggressive fossil fuel burning of some of the richest countries, including Australia, the USA, hosts Japan and European nations.

Rugby World Cup score USA v Tonga

This climate injustice mirrors that within world rugby where these same countries poach the best players from Pacific Islands and yet omit those countries from decision making and have even proposed excluding Fiji, Tonga and Samoa from future major tournaments. Whether it’s current players like England’s Manu Tuilagi and Wales’ Talupe Faletau or greats from the past like New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu, Australia’s Lote Tuqiri, Samoa’s Pat Lam and Fiji’s Waisale Serevi, Polynesian players have enriched rugby nations around the world.
The report, World in Disunion, shows how the Pacific Islands face a climate onslaught as the world heats up, while richer rugby nations block progress to tackle climate change.


  • Hotter and more acidic oceans, due to higher levels of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, kill coral reefs upon which fish populations, and fishing communities, depend.
  • Rising sea levels will swallow land, increase flooding and salinate water supplies.
  • The region is also likely to experience more category 3 to 5 storms, such as last year’s Cyclone Gita which was the strongest tropical cyclone to hit Tonga since records began. 
  • Climate change impacts threaten to undermine the islands’ economies, deterring tourists, making life increasingly tough and driving young people away, putting strain on the countries’ ability to field competitive rugby teams.
  • Researchers warn of mass migration from the islands as a result of climate change in the coming decades. 
  • One study suggested that up to 1.7 million people could be forced to move from their homes in the region as a result of climate change by 2050. There will be only eight more Rugby World Cups by that date: fewer than the nine that have already been played.  

Former Samoan international flanker Jonny Fa'amatuainu, who had a five-year spell at Bath as well as stints with clubs in Wales and Japan, said:
'Our planet faces a climate emergency. July 2019 was the hottest month on record, ever. 2019 is on track to be the hottest year on record, ever. Climate impacts are everywhere we look, from accelerating ice melt in Greenland, increasingly savage hurricanes in the Atlantic and severe droughts in Australia.
As a Pacific Island rugby player, tackling the climate crisis is close to my heart. My grandparents and other families who lived in a village on the coast in Samoa moved inland two years ago because of climate change.The Pacific Islands are the soul of our sport, and we have produced some of the most dynamic and exciting players on the planet.'

Yet as this report underlines, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji are all facing increased risks from rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Climate change is a crisis these countries did not cause yet it’s a fight they are suffering from the most. It’s a fight they need the help of the rugby community to win. The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has asked governments to do more to protect the most vulnerable and those governments can and should do more.

Pacific islanders representing other countries at the Rugby World Cup, I urge you to use that platform to help with the climate challenge

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres

The report also shows that the Pacific Islands are bearing the brunt of climate change but have done the least to cause it, while other World Cup nations are some of the most polluting on the planet.

And despite their huge carbon pollution which has led to the climate crisis, these countries are failing to clean up their act. According to an evaluation of the competitors’ climate plans by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of climate and energy research organisations, all of the 12 top polluters playing in the tournament have insufficient plans for cutting emissions.

Report author Dr Katherine Kramer, Christian Aid’s Global Climate Lead, said: 'Climate change is the ultimate injustice issue and nowhere is that captured more clearly than among the nations taking part in the Rugby World Cup.  

The island nations in the Pacific are some of the most vulnerable in the world and they have done almost nothing to cause their plight.  The main culprits for causing the climate crisis are European nations as well as major coal burners like Australia, the USA and Japan. Not only have they caused the current dire situation, but they are dragging their feet on making the needed transition to a zero-carbon economy'

The theme song for the Rugby World Cup is 'World in Union'. The lyrics say ‘We must cross rough seas, we must take our place in history and live with dignity.’  For the vulnerable in the Pacific islands rough seas are an increasing threat to their ability to live with dignity. What we need is for leaders in rich countries to truly take their place in history and commit to slashing their CO2 emissions.

Read the report