Father, skier, activist, Auden Schendler can keep up. PHOTO: Tom Zuccareno
Father, skier, activist, Auden Schendler can keep up. PHOTO: Tom Zuccareno

Skiers Can Make a Difference On Climate Change

Aspen’s Auden Schendler draws the line on what matters in the fight to stop global warming and what doesn’t

Last winter I watched a documentary on climate change. One of those indie films where the filmmaker travels the globe to witness the melting glaciers and the rising tides and interview Chinese girls who are wearing facemasks. It was during the scene in China with smog so thick it blotted the sky, and pipes from coal factories pumped out plumes of smoke, when my friend leaned over and whispered to me, 'You've seen Salt Lake on a day that looks like this, right?'

I have seen Salt Lake City on a day like that, when the air was so dirty I could feel it.

These are the moments when I start to lose my shit, especially all of my hope in the world, in people, in our country, and our leaders. And my head spins even more when I see ski resorts left and right touting their horn about a new recycling program or advancements in snowmaking as if that's actually going to make a difference.

Which brings up an important question. When it comes to solving climate change, what does make a difference? What can I do?

I called up a leader who actually does give me hope. His name is Auden Schendler and he is the Vice President of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company. Despite being on the front lines of the battle against climate change, he is an optimist. He is also warm and smart. Schendler cut to the chase, and then answered many more questions I had about climate change and what we can actually do to stop it.

Let's get right into it. When ski resorts talk about green efforts, what is real? What is significant? What matters?

I don't think you should say [Mount] Abrams did this, Aspen did this, and Vail is doing this. There's this bigger philosophical issue. We have to acknowledge or understand as a starting point that to be sustainable has got to mean solving climate change.

You can work on trash, but if you don't solve climate that doesn't matter. You can work on public lands and open space, but if you don't solve climate, you lose public lands and open space, because they change, they dry up, they catch on fire.

Solving climate has become synonymous with sustainability. So then you have to ask the question: 'Well, how does a ski business do that?'

The skiing analogy would be, if you're not falling, you're probably not pushing yourself enough. And on climate, if you're not at risk politically or from public criticism, and if you don't feel uncomfortable, if it doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing enough on climate.

So how does a ski business solve climate change?

The corporate sustainability movement, over the last 30 years or more, has typically addressed that question by saying, 'OK, we'll reduce our carbon footprint.'

The challenge with that is this conversation with a CEO:

Hey, what do you care about around sustainability?

'Well, we've got to solve climate change.'

OK. How are you solving climate change?

'We're cutting our carbon footprint 10 percent by 2025.'

Oh great, that's hard and admirable. Is that going to solve climate change?

No.

OK, so your approach to solving climate change, which you recognize as an existential threat to your business, is a program that you know won't save climate change?

Well the answer is that—it's easy and it's non-controversial to green your operations.

The skiing analogy would be, if you're not falling, you're probably not pushing yourself enough. And on climate, if you're not at risk politically or from public criticism, and if you don't feel uncomfortable, if it doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing enough on climate.

That sounds like a familiar storyline I've been told a lot recently with ski towns and ski resorts committing to lower their carbon footprints. But that's not enough. What more do they need to do?

So the way to think about it is, we could be the filthiest, least responsible company in the world, but if we were actively and effectively pushing on climate and we were able to get the policy changes needed in place, we could achieve sustainability.

Look at Outdoor Retailer, how the outdoor industry wielded power and drove real change in Salt Lake. They put a $100 million hit on the state of Utah. Legislators absolutely understood what happened to them. And, they got the message. And I suspect there's going to be change around that.

So this is all a roundabout way of saying, if there was a hierarchy of action, the most important thing to do would be to wield political power around climate, and the second thing to do would be to green your operations, but I honestly don't see that as environmentalism anymore. I just see it as business.

I understand, and I agree. But it's still hard for me to judge when a ski resort says they're going to change their lightbulbs to LEDs or invest in more efficient snowmaking systems, whether those programs actually matter, or whether they are greenwashing ploys.

If a business replaces all its light bulbs and just goes to LEDs, as we have done, that's hardly something you should go out and say, 'hey we're so green we did this.' Because you just saved like 50 percent on your investment. It's just business, and actually if you don't do that, you're stupid.

So it's not like, that's environmentalism.

Let's talk about Vail. They recently announced plans to neutralize their carbon footprint in less than 15 years. They hold so much influence, their reach is very far, they're an international company, and the exposure of what they're doing will hopefully influence other people. How much credit do they deserve?

Yeah, I think that's right on.

[Vail] taking this position is more important than Aspen taking it. Because we're a smaller, privately held company. And they're publically traded and they're big. You know, they're a business, like a hardcore business in a way that gives credibility. So that is really important.

Now, compare say, to Mount Abram, which they did a really great thing, and it's also a great model and a statement. I don't know if Mount Abram's CEO has taken any kind of stance on anything.

I've been saying for years, if your CEO hasn't made a public statement on climate, and the need for action, you're not a green company.

OK, so how far does a ski resort need to go with this statement?

I don't think one should hold a corporation to looking after every aspect of its own footprint, I think you should hold them to advocating for systemic change.

What about energy? There are different levels of action here. A ski resort could build their own solar panels, like Mount Abram. They could work with a utility to hook them up to renewable energy sources, like the municipal of Park City. Or they could buy renewable energy credits. Which ones count?

If you are buying renewable energy certificates, they're called, RECs, that is not real.

Because, if you are business, and then you buy RECs, in the course of an hour, you're now able to make a renewable energy claim. But nothing changed in the world. There is no more clean power in the grid.

Vail knows this, just like we did. They tried [to buy RECs] after we did years ago. And then I said, 'Oh, this isn't real.' And we bailed, and later they bailed.

So they're going to be looking for legitimate clean power, which would mean something like agreeing to buy power from a wind farm for 20 years. And then seeing that wind farm built. So that is actually changing the world.

Now the problem is, [Vail] is going to be working with utilities that have restrictions. It's going to be hard, but they're on the right path.

Climate change has already impacted the ski industry, and we can expect winters that are warmer, wetter, more erratic, and less predictable. What should ski resorts do to prepare themselves for climate change?

It's sort of like saying, 'New York, how do you adapt to another Sandy?' Well, you really can't. These things are so big and so extreme. So the idea of adaptation is a little misleading. You can't adapt to where we're headed.

And we're headed toward four degrees Celsius.

Which is more than what the Paris Accord's goals are.

It's twice that.

Once you get to four degrees Celsuis, you've triggered all these feedback loops. Those are things like release of methane in the arctic, where you release it and it gets warmer and you release more.

Those feedback loops are the big fear. And there's this great quote by a guy, a scientist named Kevin Anderson who works in England at a climate center. And he said four degrees Celsius is, this is a direct quote, 'is incompatible with the global organized community.'

And what he means, is you end up in a kind of Mad Max, Antarctic world, where a hundred million Bangladeshis are migrating across Asia. And your coasts in the U.S. are flooded. That's a crazy world.

The groups that are warning about four degrees Celsuis, they're not the environmental groups. It's the World Bank, it's Price Water House Coopers, and it's the International Energy Agency. These are all accounting firms or banks.

That's heavy. So, going back to your first point about taking action, what can we do locally to make a difference globally? Ski towns are getting on board with renewable energy, does that make a difference?

Yeah, it does. Because that's scale you can influence.

And you know, at a city or town level, you're influencing utilities. Then you're pushing on state politics.

We've been pushing on our governor, and being successful. He just released an executive order on climate that's meaningful. And we really pushed hard on him. And then at the state level, there's potential for putting even more clean energy on the grid, and we're going to be involved in that, and that's progress. And by the way, state-level progress is getting federal. California is making progress. They're the seventh largest economy in the world. So they are a country.