Skiing and climate urgency

Ski industry trade links covid crisis to the long-smoldering issue of climate change

by Allen Best

The National Ski Areas Association, the ski industry’s primary trade group, was long restrained in its conversation about climate change. That has changed.

The front-and-center story in the current issue of the organization’s official magazine, the NSAA Journal, has a muscular call to action. The story, “Cross-Crisis Solutions,” links the global covid-19 pandemic and global climate change.

In crisis lies opportunity, says Heather B. Fried, the article’s writer, and the magazine editor.

“From one immediate crisis to another that’s been smoldering on the backburner, the opportunity in this moment feels palpable,” she writes. “The lessons we take out of covid-19 may mean that, sometime down the line, we won’t also have to face the disappearance of winter.”

Kelly Pawlak, the president of the trade organization for almost two years, strikes a careful but determined tone. “I would like to think the bipartisan support for covid-19 relief packages will persist, and that some of that same urgency will carry over in tackling other world problems, like working to find solutions to our climate crisis.”

The article suggests the need to fight the Trump administration rollback of the low-carbon fuel standard and supports extension of tax incentives for renewable energy generation.

A disclosure: I write periodically for Ski Area Management, a trade magazine. In 2003, the editor, Rick Kahl, asked me to summarize what was being said about global warming. This was a topic to which I had hitherto paid little attention. What I read caused me to bolt upright. It changed my career path.

During my deep dive during the next year into the science and politics, I visited Auden Schendler, who was trying to reform best practices at the Aspen Skiing Co. and even then had set out to help create the national policies needed to make meaningful change. The ski industry’s voice today sounds an awful lot like that of Schendler a decade ago.

For Ski Area Management, I continued to contribute articles about energy efficiency in buildings, about the latest understandings about impacts of warming on high elevations. My fact-finding did not uncover imminent Armageddon for Colorado ski areas. Narrower winters, true, more rain instead of snow, like soggy Whistler. Probably less affluence among a middle class that even high-end ski resorts depend upon to fill out the season. Lower-elevation ski areas, though, face a much more dire future.

The ski industry is a mixed bag politically. If anything, it edges toward the conservative. Ski company offices tended to think of themselves as environmentalists, because they’re not miners nor, on a large scale, loggers. But climate change is a far different—and difficult—discussion. It’s us, not them.

My articles danced around this difficult conversation. So did, I think, the policies of NSAA. That has shifted over time. Geraldine Link, the director of public policy, most recently has guided the organization into partnerships within a broader coalition of outdoor industry groups to create a unified and amplified voice about the need for federal policies to address climate change.

Link was featured prominently in the NSAA’s story. “The carbon reductions that we are seeing right now, estimated to be around 5% globally, show us how much we will have to do in the future to curb warming,” she says.

“If we need a 7.6% drop in emissions to meet the target of keeping to a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature rise, we won’t be shutting the world down to get there. We need to make investments and decisions now – in transportation, power and infrastructure – that help us transition to a green energy economy.”

In a follow-up e-mail, she insisted this is not a new direction for the organization. “NSAA has voiced concern on climate change, taken action on climate change, and encouraged our members to take action on climate for quite some time now,” she said. My ears hear a new, more urgent tone.

David Perry, formerly of the Aspen Skiing Co. and now of Alterra Mountain Co., says in the article that he sees at the intersection with covid a “massive opportunity for the dialogue around the climate crisis to be raised to a new level.”

Economists say we need a high price on carbon emissions to reflect the true cost of emissions and accelerate the necessary changes. A month ago, I’d have said that was utterly impossible.

But look no further than Black Lives Matter to see how quickly public opinion can pivot. It has been so long in coming, this toppling of the statues erected to those men —always, the men—who took up arms to defend and expand slavery, the statues themselves erected decades later to buttress the Jim Crow laws that altogether were designed and succeeded in restoring and defending the old order of the antebellum South.

It seems in this time of reckoning that that anything just might be possible.


Allen Best