Using skiing to make case for climate action

Bald Mountain Cornice

As civilization walks on the edge of irreversible change of the climate, Aspen Skiing and Vail Resorts have adopted very different public approaches. Photo/Allen Best.

Vail Resorts & Aspen Skiing

and  the big issue of our time

by Allen Best

Although I agree with part of what Rob Katz said in op-ed in The Denver Post on Dec. 23 part of it mystifies me.

Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change, but also someone who tries not to look at every weather pattern as ‘proof’ of something,’” wrote Katz, the chief executive of Vail Resorts Inc.

Agreed—even if perhaps I have also overstepped the line in speculating when it has rained at Christmas or sweltered in June.

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Allen Best

In 2004, while researching what ended up being an award-winning series on global warming in the Vail Daily (parts were re-published in most of the other ski town newspapers), I went to Boulder, Colo., to hear Susan Solomon speak. An atmospheric chemist, she was among the key scientists who figured out the ozone hole puzzle in the 1980s. She is also a key figure in the International Panel on Climate Change.

Do not interpret any single weather event as being proof of anything, she said. Climate-change will only become clear in the rear-view mirror.

That stuck with me, and I have tried to emphasize it in my reporting and in my essays.

See: “Don’t blame everything on climate change,” which ran in early 2011.

Also: “Global climate change: We need to talk about it,” from July 2012.

Effect of human-caused warming in strengthening weather such as Hurricane Sandy is open to dispute. One scientist, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, estimates up to 15 percent. Other scientists are hesitant. Like Solomon, they say it’s possible — but we can’t attribute any one weather event to global warming.

But here’s the main point: The theory of global warming is cohesive and has so far withstood general scrutiny. It explains much of what we’re seeing, and points to rocky changes ahead, including the future of mountain resorts.

(For a compelling argument, see Bill McKibben’s July 19 essay in Rolling Stone, called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” )

Mystifying is this part of Katz’s piece:

“But to the folks trying to alarm people with images of melting snow, here is the dirty little secret: When the effects of climate change really show up, no one will care about skiing at Aspen and Vail. They will be rightly focused on the wildlife, natural habitat and people of our planet, about the sea levels, flooding and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.”

I disagree with Katz’s statement in that climate change is cataclysmic, like the Red Sea parting. That’s misleading. The story is in the increments.

But there’s also something else going on here. In an e-mail, Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga told The Aspen Times that Katz’s comment was not a direct response to the strategy of Aspen Skiing Co., nor to the latest warning contained in a study by two professors from the University of New Hampshire.

That study described with alarm the vulnerability of ski areas to the changing climate.

In the publicity splash that was partly orchestrated by the Aspen Skiing Co., the company’s sustainability chief, Auden Schendler, called on industry officials to “get off their asses” and treat climate change like an “existential threat,” reported The Aspen Times. See: “Study shows warming threat to skiing.”

Peas from the same pod

Like rival siblings, Aspen and Vail are two peas from the same pod. They both cater to the world’s 1 to 5 percent of economic elites, and they’re both heavily dependent on energy, mostly carbon.

Both have also been trying to reduce energy use. Under Katz, Vail has launched a major effort to reduce energy use 20 percent. So far, they’ve ratcheted back 10 percent.

In its latest report, Aspen Skiing Co. says it has held carbon emissions flat between 2000 and 2011, despite company growth and revenue increases of 41 percent.

Aspen can still boast of powder at its Snowmass ski area, but all models show less and less powder in decades ahead. Photo/Jeremy Swanson.

Aspen can still boast of powder at its Snowmass ski area, but all models show less and less powder in decades ahead. Photo/Jeremy Swanson.

Beyond this, the two companies have approached climate change very differently. Aspen wants to use its prominence to make the case for climate change action, and it wants to use downhill skiing as the poster child.

The thinking is not new, but it is laid out clearly in the newest sustainability report:

“Most businesses trying to be sustainable focus on greening their operations and products. But that’s not nearly enough to stop climate change, and therefore doesn’t achieve true sustainability. That’s why corporations must become climate activists, pushing for big-scale solutions.”

For the most part, Vail has taken the opposite tack. Although Katz was a prime speaker in 2007 when then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter laid out his Colorado Climate Action Plan, the company more generally has not trumpeted the cause.

But it’s not shy of seeking publicity. When the company bought renewable energy credits for wind generation, the announcement was made with great fanfare in Denver, and Katz’s team got politicians of many stripes to link arms in praise of Vail’s actions, leading to prominent attention in the two daily newspapers in Denver and even the New York Times. By one estimate, the publicity alone was valued at $800,000. How much the wind energy purchase cost the company, I never learned.

But here’s the interesting part. I secured an interview with Katz, but found it difficult to get a mention of “climate change” or “global warming” out of him. Well coached ahead of time, he mostly stuck to the narrative of “it’s the right thing to do.”

Full of the sermon

Aspen, in contrast, is full of the sermon, and I know that rankles Vail. When I did my climate change series in 2004, I was hearing growly statements from Vail Resorts. The executive I interviewed didn’t disagree with the general movement away from coal, but hated what he perceived as a patronizing treatment by Aspen Skiing Co. “Wait until they have an emergency and need our assistance,” he said, or something to that effect. He didn’t say it wouldn’t be forthcoming. Only that he had thought about it.

(You can read more about the contrasting goals and strategies in a piece published almost three years ago in Slate.)

Aspen’s approach has weaknesses. The case for ski area vulnerability might resonate much more broadly if you were a ski area located in New England or in the Sierra Nevada, where effects are likely to be felt much sooner than in the higher, colder Rocky Mountains. Too, there’s something unseemly about a resort that caters to some of the world’s richest, most carbon-dependent people, making the case for change. That’s a vulnerability that the climate warriors in Aspen mostly seem to be aware of.

But hey, climate change really is a problem, in that the actions taken (or not taken) today will have huge impacts 40 to 60 years from now. Consider that we’re still paying for cleanup of mining done a century ago. Cost of the cleanup of mining at Minturn and Gilman, around the corner from Vail, is now at somewhere around $100 million—and will forevermore rise as water must continue to be treated. That’s just one piddling mine.

With greenhouse gases, the problem is much, much bigger, the final tab astronomically larger.

Front and center

Is Aspen’s tool bag too limited? All the great agitators have been fueled by great passion. You need that, even if at times the method and the narrow vision can be grating, as it was to the Vail executive (and as it sometimes is to me).

That’s generally true of the front-line climate crusaders. Too often I hear and read polarizing talk of deniers, fervor replacing careful thought or listening and hearing. At times, I think I detect ego wrapped up in the cause. At times, the approach is ready, fire, aim.

But credit Aspen with this: It’s keep the topic front and center. If you review the Civil Rights efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, or Apartheid of South Africa, it took individuals and companies wiling to step up, even if the problem was not within their immediate, narrow business interests.

As for Vail, it’s a company inventive enough to rock and roll the ski world with its Epic Pass. Wouldn’t it be cool to see that same innovative talent applied to the public policy debate regarding energy?

This first appeared in the Jan. 7, 2013, issue of Mountain Town News. Subscriptions are $45 per year. See subscription information at About: MTN.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
This entry was posted in Environmental, Mountain towns, Renewable Energy, Science, Tourism, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Using skiing to make case for climate action

  1. cathy casper says:

    What a great photo! That guy looks like he’s walking right down the shoulder of the Earth.

  2. Nathan says:

    Allen, interesting article, thanks for your coverage of the issue. It’s surprising more ski resorts and the ski community as a whole are not responding more aggressively. But, I’m curious about your comment on looking at individual weather events as ‘proof’ of climate change. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is 390+ ppm all day, every day of the year. In other words, every weather event – including ‘normal’ weather days – is influenced by climate change. Clearly, looking at the patterns and trends is the most telling indicator, but we should remember that climate change doesn’t only account for certain ‘extreme’ weather events covered in the news, it is with us always.

  3. Keith Bare says:

    vail chopped the wind credits cause it cost some money and now has gone back to using coal powered electricity for snowmaking, again, Katz does the two step sideways talk the talk but don’t walk the walk!,

  4. Pingback: Ski Area Sustainability: Who's Who in North America » SHIFT JH

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