Climate Change and the Winter Sports Industry

Welcome to part two of Climate Change and the Winter Sports Industry, a special series of interviews with leading members of the industry. Last week saw Chris Steinkamp from Protect Our Winters sit down with Nomads on the Road to discuss climate change and the role winter sports industry can, and has to, play.

This week Auden Schendler from the Aspen Ski Company discuss ways his resort is adapting to a greener era. Auden is the Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a Time Magazine global warming innovator. As well as being the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Line of the Sustainability Revolution, Auden has testified to Congress on the impacts of climate change.

Hiking Aspen for fresh snow, under threat from climate change?

Aspen Skiing Company operates four mountains – Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk and is the home of the X-Games. As one of the leading ski areas in the USA and the world, Aspen is hoping to cover electricity purchases with clean power by 2020.

Nomads on the Road: How realistic is it for a ski resort to be carbon-neutral?

Auden Schendler: Not really realistic, and it’s a disingenuous claim typically because you can’t peg it. For example, does it include guest travel? Does it include buses in town? Because it’s so hard to define, many businesses are steering away from this term and this goal.

Note that we (Aspen) don’t make this claim – we say we’ll achieve radical efficiency and cover electricity purchases with clean power by 2020. Now, even that may not be possible and it’s much nuanced.

We could buy cheap renewable energy certificates today and “meet” that goal but that too would be disingenuous, since it would cost very little and do nothing for the planet.Solar power in action at Aspen

We’re going to achieve this goal by putting steel in the ground and actually making that power come onto the grid -at great cost, great inconvenience and risk.

NOTR: How important is it for ski resorts to be seen leading the fight against climate change and how can you encourage your guests to follow suit and cut their carbon footprint?

AS: It’s vitally important because skiing is a way for the public to understand climate change. We are an industry that should be naturally concerned about this issue, and we have huge influence and leverage.

Reaching the guest is difficult, but one angle is to tap the power and influence of professional athletes, all of whom, it seems, care deeply about climate change.

So we’re doing this in partnership with Protect Our Winters, an NGO set up to mobilise and engage the winter sports community on climate change. It’s a big business, actually, winter sports: $66 billion in the USA alone.

In terms of reaching our guests, we care less about individuals reducing the carbon footprint and more that they become political activists and understand climate science. The carbon footprint reduction is great and should happen but it won’t get us to the scale we need to solve climate. That’s where policy and activism comes in. And our guests are often the kinds of people who have substantial influence. Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Company.

NOTR: How do you balance your stated goals of fighting against climate change and winter sports, which inevitably leave a carbon footprint?

AS: If the criterion for who can fight climate change is that you can’t have a carbon footprint, you’d have an army of none.

Then if your criteria were that you couldn’t use  A LOT of energy, and have a big carbon footprint, you’d still lose most corporations, which all use huge amounts of energy and have huge carbon footprints -most Americans too.

The problem with Aspen is that it’s seen as a centre of affluence and conspicuous consumption. So how can we even talk? That’s a fair point, but you can flip that. If you really cared about solving climate change at the policy level, where, exactly, might you try to fight that battle? In Samoa or Bangladesh, doing good works?

From a small NGO with no power or influence but no carbon footprint or in one of the centres of power and influence in the world? In other words, Aspen is the problem, and yet the people here, are the people who can change the world.  Given Aspen’s affluence and abundance, are we not obligated to try to solve this problem, since we have the means? Who else should we expect to take a shot at it?

In the end, we can’t legislate which businesses can and can’t exist, or can and can’t talk about climate. Instead, we have to fix the whole enchilada, so that when you ski or fly, or subsistence farm, you have a very small carbon footprint. Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Company.

If we succeed in getting a carbon tax passed through all our work in Washington DC, it will force us, and this industry, to find green solutions if we want to stay in business. We welcome that opportunity, and we’re moving in in that direction, even without the carbon tax.

NOTR: What changes in the winter sports industry have you seen in the last 20 years – weather, people, accessing backcountry and the industry?

AS: The biggest change I’ve seen is that there has been this maturation among the hardcore athletes that represented the new generation of fat ski skiers, snowboarders, and X games athletes. Elk Camp Lift at Aspen

Many of the first waves of this generation have come of age, and they are looking for some level of meaning in their lives. And they are finding it either in solving climate change or in doing good work in other ways. I’m thinking of JP Auclair, who invented many of the aerial maneuvers we are familiar with on skis, then started Alpine Initiatives, which is building orphanages in Kenya and doing other crucial relief work.

I’m thinking of Gretchen Bleiler, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso, Jeremy Jones, Chris Davenport, all of whom are working on climate change now. I’m thinking of the guys who produced All.I.Can, who are young but reflect this new ideology. These athletes have said: skiing is rad, but I want more.

In terms of weather, we’ve seen dozens of European resort simply close down due to warming. We’ve seen spring come three weeks earlier in Aspen than it did in the mid-twentieth century. We’re seeing warming in the Rockies that is far greater than the rest of the country; it’s an obvious trend if you look at the data.

NOTR: How important is the role of the ‘big’ resorts in changing the way we use energy to power the ski hills?

AS: In the same way, the US has to lead on solving climate (or the rest of the world won’t follow) the big resorts have to lead. The big businesses have to lead. The problem is that “buying clean power” can mean a variety of things. It currently means buying cheap renewable energy certificates that don’t drive change in the world. That’s a scam. What it should mean is being a catalyst for the installation of owned, clean power resources, actually preventing CO2 emissions. That’s what we’re working on, on a very large scale.

NOTR: Can we see a direct connection between the relatively lean years of snow in Europe during the winter months and climate change?

AS: Ask the Europeans. Warming has become obvious to anyone with their eyes open, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Beyond warmer temperatures, we are seeing the weather events climatologists have been predicting for decades as a result of warming: more, bigger storms, droughts, floods, fires. When you have more moisture in the air, and more energy (heat) all these things follow.  2010 was the warmest year, globally, in recorded history.  2011 is tracking to be even warmer. What does the future hold for Aspen?

NOTR: What does the future hold for the winter sports industry if climate change continues unabated?

AS: The challenge isn’t what you’d think: it’s not that skiing is going away everywhere. The challenge is that climate change forces us to become a survival society, where communities are under such pressure from floods, fires, storms, heat, that our resources, and our time, gets sucked up into just dealing with the problem.

The economic costs of NOT addressing climate change are astronomical. The threat to skiing from climate change is the end of economic prosperity in countries with ski resorts, not lack of snow.  Unmitigated climate change is going to produce that outcome.

Thanks to Auden Schendler for his generous time and the Aspen Ski Company for the use of their images.


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