As it stands, the peer-reviewed science says we’re skiing on borrowed time. With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, causing global temperatures to rise with them, the future of skiing in North America in the face of climate change looks strikingly similar to last season. And if you don’t remember, last season sucked for almost everyone reading this.
This is what the science is telling us: By 2039, the East Coast ski season will be a full two weeks shorter; the chance of resorts being open for Christmas will be below 75 percent; and mountains will be increasingly dependent on snowmaking to get the season up and running, meaning less skiing in the trees, steepening ticket prices as snowmaking costs increase, and more hills going out of business. Out West, high-altitude snowpacks have been in a steady decline, and, like this past season, seasons will shorten, more precipitation will fall as rain, and spring melt-off will come earlier. Lower-elevation resorts in the Alps, where temperatures are rising at three times the global average, are already downsizing in anticipation of a warmer, low-snow future.
To date, the ski industry and its associated trade groups, such as the National Ski Areas Association, Snowsports Industry Association, Colorado Ski Country, and Ski Utah, have focused their response to climate change mostly on internal sustainability efforts. They’ve focused on making buildings, snowmaking systems, supply chains, and factories more energy efficient while installing small-scale renewable energy. Unfortunately, this strategy is nowhere near approaching the scale of global climate change. Regardless of those efforts, people will still be getting to resorts in a car or plane spewing CO2, coal will still power around 40 percent of our energy in the U.S., and emissions will continue to rise and likely accelerate. It’s time to scale the response to the size of the actual problem.
Fortunately, the ski industry has huge potential to create change where it does make a difference: the national legislature. The ski industry is cool and far more interesting to pay attention to than, say, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (sorry guys), and the image of ski slopes no longer covered in pristine white has a sort of iconic staying power. It’s a dead-obvious indicator of a lifestyle, and jobs, in jeopardy. Western states, where much of the ski industry is based, have outsize power in Congress relative to their populations, which gives Western senators an advantage in moving national politics. Not to mention that $66 billion—the estimated value of the entire snowsports industry—carries some serious clout in Washington.
Despite the real risks of climate change, none of the major trade groups (SIA, NSAA, Colorado Ski Country, and Ski Utah) have done much to let Washington know they’re even formally concerned about climate change, let alone included climate legislation as part of their formal lobbying programs. While both the NSAA and SIA encourage their members to advocate for policy changes, and the NSAA has sent a few letters supporting individual pieces of clean air or emissions regulations on behalf of member resorts (who seemed more concerned about the issue than their trade group does), none have been willing to take a firm stand on the issue themselves like Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf has on land use issues. In response to Utah governor Gary Herbert’s attempts to transfer public lands in the state to private ownership, which would diminish outdoor recreation in the state and sell off precious wilderness to private developers, Metcalf wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune and then resigned from the state’s Ski and Snowboard Industry Working Group. Soon after, the Outdoor Industry Association threatened to move the $40 million Outdoor Retailer trade show out of the state. Metcalf has since been vocal about his opposition to the move, helping to put the issue on the state and national radar. That kind of commitment is what we need. Now.
The first thing the trade groups need to do is take a firm stand on the issue, one that expresses the concern we should all have for the future of skiing. Then they need to be using their lobbying platforms to let Congress know that the $66 billion ski industry and its 21 million participants want definitive policy action now. Need a policy to rally around? With the fiscal cliff looming at the end of this year, a carbon tax and dividend could be a great solution to lobby for that would keep government revenue stable and start accounting for the real cost of carbon emissions while letting the free market figure out how best to reduce them. It could also deflect increases to income and payroll taxes, or cuts to social-spending programs, all of which are at risk on the other side of that cliff.
For individuals, Protect Our Winters, the nonprofit fighting climate change on behalf of the winter sports community, has a great 7-step program for people who want to get serious about climate change. The highest priority is the same: get political. Write or call your senators letting them know you want action. Take it a step further: Contact your local resort and see what they’re doing to pressure their local senators or trade group on climate issues. Additionally, Practically Green has an ingenious program that assigns points to a whole catalog of sustainable actions based on their verified impact—demystifying much of what “being sustainable” is all about. At this point, all companies should consider sustainability measures—it’s just smart business. But to have the ski industry use its leverage as major state tax contributors to influence policy is a powerful tactic that is sadly being overlooked.
The winter of 2013 is upon us. Taking action on climate change will protect this industry, and this sport, for ourselves and for generations to come. Are we going to just wait and see what happens, or are we going to get political?