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Can Aspen Skiing move the fulcrum of climate change in the U.S. Senate?

Company will use advertising campaigns to focus on issue

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ASPEN, Colo.—With its new advertising campaign this autumn, the Aspen Skiing Co. audaciously seeks to budge the United States off its indecisive fence about climate change.

The campaign, called Give a Flake, takes aim at three U.S. senators: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Maine's Susan Collins, and Ohio's Rob Portman. The three, all Republicans, have indicated they understand the science of climate change. Yet they have hedged, unwilling to support policies and programs that Aspen thinks will be needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To push the three senators, the company's Give a Flake advertisements in national magazines will feature tear-out, prepaid postage cards for readers to sign and mail to the senators. Ads will go into Freeskier, Ski Magazine, Snow, Mountain, Outside, Powder, Transworld, and Aspen Sojourner.

The company also has suggested action on its website, www.aspensnowmass.com.

"Our founding vision, the Aspen Idea, was never about escaping reality or retreating from the world's challenges," said Mike Kaplan, the chief executive officer of Aspen Skiing Co. "That's why we are taking the bold step of launching the Give a Flake campaign."

In the second instalment, the company's marketing campaign will focus on social concerns, including tolerance and LGBTQ rights. "Not only does Aspen Snowmass have valued visitors who are diverse in their sexual orientations and ethnicities, but our co-workers, friends, and community members are, too," said Kaplan.

On the political front, Aspen Skiing has engaged in the traditional fights of the ski industry about water rights and disagreements with federal land managers. In this, it operates little differently, if at all, compared to other ski area operators.

On climate change, though, Aspen Skiing has been at the front edge. It has called for mountain resorts and their well-heeled patrons to use their influence to push for actions from local to national levels. If less boldly, the ski industry has come around in the same general direction.

Continued warming and other effects of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions pose an existential threat to the traditional ski industry business model. Climate researcher Cameron Wobus several years ago examined climate effects on 247 resorts in North America. Aspen, similar to other Colorado resorts, is less vulnerable than low-lying and coastal resorts. Still, by mid-century the ski season at Aspen could shorten by 15 to 30 days. By 2090, lifts could operate 30 to 50 fewer days.

Auden Schendler, the company's vice president for sustainability, said his team worked with Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council to identify which senators would be the most "moveable." Several criteria were considered, including whether, like Alaska and Maine, the states have substantial ski areas, and whether the individual senators had previously expressed concern about the warming climate. None of the three are up for re-election this year, also a criterion.

Collins, from Maine, has been outspoken and has even supported legislation wanted by climate activists, "but too often defaults to a slow walk, like an air conditioner on low," said Schendler. Ohio's Portman has acknowledged climate science but "niggled over whether the human impact has been 'significant' or not." Murkowski has said it's time for the Republican Party to take climate change seriously and has a nephew who makes ski movies. However, on environmental issues, the League of Women Voters credits her with 19 per cent favourable votes, compared to 50 per cent for the Senate as a whole.

Aspen also intends to target Mitt Romney, who is seeking election as the U.S. senator from Utah. Schendler says he may be a key piece in creating a Senate majority in favour of action. When running for president in 2012, he said it wasn't clear what was causing climate change. But since his election loss, said E&E News in a January report, he has been fairly consistent: humans have a role in climate change, and it's an urgent problem demanding action. 

In this work, Aspen would like big, bold legislative programs, "but we'll settle for any range of solutions that ought to happen now but that aren't getting any traction: energy efficiency legislation, auto fuel efficiency standards, methane leakage rules (now being weakened), better building standards for federal buildings, cutting fossil fuels subsidies," said Schendler.

"We're trying to develop the social movement that will get to a climate fix, and we saw these three senators, and the outdoor industry, as a fulcrum."

The second advertising push this year will be built around tolerance and LGBTQ rights. But isn't that issue decided?

"We don't believe this issue is settled, especially under the current administration," said Jeff Hanle, the spokesman for Aspen Skiing. "They are supporting policies that would reverse any progress that has been made, and we do not find that acceptable."

Added Schendler: "If you just try to live a day as if you were gay, you see prejudice everywhere. We're not more past that than we are done with civil rights."

Company personnel discussed a broad range of topics, Hanle said by e-mail. "Voter registration will be something we focus on in early digital ads. We could possibly touch on immigration as well, but we don't currently have any specifics around this."

This year's marketing campaign is, according to The Aspen Times, an "obvious extension" of the company's "Aspen Way" marketing mission of last season. In that campaign, the company touted the words "love, respect, unity, and commit" in ads and videos, as well as various locations at its four ski areas.

Kaplan, at a public forum covered by the Times, said some people had admonished him for "bringing politics into skiing." Some said they would stay away from Aspen as a result.

"But honestly, those were very few, and we really heard from a vast majority of long-time customers and millennials who hadn't been here before saying, 'That's cool you stand for something.'"

Aspen has bucked convention frequently since 2006. The company under Kaplan, the newly appointed chief executive, unveiled the Save Snow campaign that year. This was the start of a marketing strategy aimed at creating heightened awareness of climate impacts on the snow sports industry while encouraging Aspen's customers to take action.

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