I recently talked to a ski area executive who said: “We want to do something on climate change but we just don’t have the money.” I can sympathize. Each year we need to replace snow guns, buildings, and lifts, and make repairs to aging infrastructure. With a limited bucket of capital dollars, mission-critical projects often get cut, never mind solar arrays or boiler retrofits. But that’s bidniss. The happy truth is that meaningful action on climate change—the single biggest threat to ski industry profits and longevity—is actually free.
How can this be? When most resorts think about solving climate change, they focus on cutting carbon footprint. Doing so is a great business move. At Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), our CFO recently asked why we had any incandescent bulbs at all, because replacing them is too lucrative to pass up.
But voluntary carbon reduction doesn’t solve climate change. Here’s why: humans emit 34 billion tons of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, each year. ASC emits 30,000 tons a year. If we made some outlandish assumptions about the American ski industry as a whole—let’s say there are 500 other ski resorts and their emissions are all equal to the combined emissions of ASC’s four mountains—and let’s say we were so successful that we eliminated the carbon footprint of the whole industry—that would amount to 15 million tons of CO2, or .04 percent of annual global emissions.
In short, just as Captain Quint in Jaws needed a bigger boat, to fix a problem as big as climate change we’re going to need a bigger hammer. That hammer is meaningful U.S. climate policy, which will reduce emissions across the board, not piecemeal, and also provide leadership for China and India to follow.
And we need that hammer now. In the last 45 years, reports Rutgers University, spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has shrunk by one million square miles—an area the size of four Texases. Meanwhile, increasingly erratic weather, long predicted by climatologists—droughts that delay opening, winter rain on top of new snow in the Northeast, superstorms that have destroyed both roads to ski resorts in Vermont and Colorado and the very ski markets we draw from, disrupt our businesses in increasingly costly ways. Mammoth, and much of California, is in its third year of severe drought. At the same time, the cause of global warming—human emissions of fossil fuels—is well understood and not disputed by scientists.
Fortunately, it turns out that a bigger hammer exists, and it comes at a cost we can afford. The ski industry, because it is fun, popular, beloved, pressworthy, and an economic engine in many states, has political power, the use of which is free. And our participants tend to be enthusiastic, passionate, and often wealthy and influential. Our athletes—young and emerging stars like Danny Davis, John Jackson, Angel Collinson, as well as established leaders like Seth Wescott, Chris Davenport and Gretchen Bleiler—have tremendous social reach. They are all also climate activists. Therefore, our community is uniquely positioned to create the political will for meaningful climate action.
The way to do that is to speak out. We need industry CEOs and trade group heads to acknowledge the opportunity and threat climate change presents, and to do so at national meetings, in op eds and on social media, in Washington D.C., and through interviews. The message is simple: We can clean up pollution and ensure that snowsports will provide joy, jobs, profit and fun, forever.
There have been two primary barriers to such aggressive climate advocacy. The first is fear that government action will increase the cost of operations—why lobby for that? But government policy, through the EPA, is already partly in place, and along with cheap gas is forcing the retirement of coal-fired power plants nationwide. Meanwhile, many ski states like California, Oregon and Colorado already have aggressive renewable energy standards, and the price of power hasn’t climbed beyond historical averages. In fact, clean power is coming in at a lower cost than coal or gas. In Colorado, the state Public Utilities Commission reported that a recent wind power purchase would save ratepayers $100 million over fossil power sources.
The second barrier to climate action has been that we’re all busy with the arduous work of keeping ski areas running, and therefore we haven’t been adequately educated on climate science and scale solutions. That’s why the industry “fix” for climate tends to default to greening individual resorts. Indeed, much of the Winter issue of NSAA Journal is dedicated to operational sustainability—including carbon footprint reduction. But there’s no reference to why we want to reduce our carbon footprint (beyond cost savings). It’s a Catch-22: the articles are about sustainability, but the actions described don’t address the scope and scale of climate change. So the resorts that implement the advice provided can’t be sustainable, because sustainability isn’t possible in a climate changed world.
Providing the necessary education and guidance on the scale of climate change—and what solutions actually address the problem vs. tweak around the edges—is the role of trade groups, and thankfully, many of them are finally planning speakers and programming that go beyond resort greening into the realm of advocacy and activism. Last year, NSAA coordinated 100-plus signatures on a climate petition that was sent to D.C. SIA hosted Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell, one of the top climate reporters in the U.S., for a breakfast keynote at the Denver Snow Show. Most encouraging, NSAA has booked climate activist and former conservative Republican congressman Bob Inglis to speak at its national conference in Savannah.
If, unified, we are able to exert this industry’s political power to solve the most pressing crisis of the modern era, our children and grandchildren will look back on our work with the same awe and reverence we all have` for the great snowy ranges of the world.