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With new tone, a more unified ski industry raises its profile on climate

Less gloom, more optimism about solutions



In September, as world leaders began preparing for the this week's climate change negotiations in Paris, the ski industry sent a letter of stern words to President Barack Obama. But it also mentioned a silver lining.

"Failure to act now on climate is unacceptable, and will result in damage to the environment, tourism and the economy," said the letter, which was endorsed by 13 trade groups and associations, including the National Ski Areas Association. "This is the greatest opportunity of our time."

The letter was indicative of a new, unified approach by the ski industry and its partners, one that emphasizes solutions, not the worrisome climate-change science.

"We aren't calling people who don't believe in climate change stupid," says David Ingemie, president of the SnowSports Industries America, a trade association representing retailers and manufacturers. "More people are listening and it's less confrontational."

Some individuals point to the success of Protect Our Winters, a group of athletes, after it moderated its approach. Others say they have been persuaded by the market-based approach advocated by Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina. But few talk about the science.

"When you talk doom-and-gloom, that turns more people into deniers. They think things are hopeless," says Geraldine Link director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association, a trade association for ski area operators and suppliers in the United States.

"That has been a huge shift in the dialogue within the ski industry, that recognition that all of that doom-and-gloom is not having any effect on Washington decision-makers or on everyday people."

Solutions, she says, draw interest from conservative lawmakers. "When you're in Washington, the most productive conversation is about solutions, and that occurs more frequently than you would expect," she explains. "Even the most conservative offices in Washington like to talk about solutions. They like to talk about efficiency. And so if we talk about U.S. independence and better energy security for the future, many, many offices in Washington are willing to engage in that conversation."

Unmistakable warming trends, however, have also given resort operators an incentive to speak up.

"Fifteen years ago, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was called too high, too cold and too far," says Jerry Blann, president of the resort company. "I like to say that climate change is working on that middle one."

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had 20 record-warm days last winter; records go back 40 years. In the nearby town of Jackson, the annual snowmobile hill climb in March was cancelled for the first time ever, because of warm temperatures.

Blann says the ski industry always has had skeptics of climate-change science. "But it's less and less so," he reports. "It's somewhat the result of younger people getting into our industry, and it's also a recognition that we're getting a lot more warmer days.

"A reasonable person has to wake up... We have to lean in and do our part."

Multiple resorts — including Aspen Skiing and Vail Resorts —agreed to put their names on a full-page advertisement, which ran Tuesday, Dec. 1, in the Wall Street Journal. More than 100 businesses signed onto the ad, including the Coca-Cola Company, Qualcomm, Hilton Worldwide, but also DuPont, General Mills, and Ingersoll-Rand. The advertisement calls for an agreement that "provides long-term direction and periodic strengthening to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Centigrade."

The full-page ad also encourages the U.S. government to "support investment in the low-carbon economy at home and abroad, giving industry clarity and boosting the confidence of investors."

Aspen and Vail in the past have approached climate change very differently.

Vail has focused on cleaning its own house. Chief executive Rob Katz in 2008 announced a goal of achieving a 10 per cent across-the-board reduction in energy use. The company succeeded in just three years. He then set a goal of another 10 per cent reduction by 2020. The company has already achieved a seven per cent reduction, reports Kelly Ladyga, vice president of corporate communications.

But Katz disavowed using skiing as the axis for making a climate change argument.

"You can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing," he wrote in a December 2012 op-ed published in The Denver Post, then added: "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."

Aspen, while reducing its carbon footprint, has robustly embraced advocacy. This winter, for example, cards are being given out to customers of the company's hotels and four ski areas. The card describes the shifting climate in Aspen, two degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the last 25 years, and correlates the shift to accumulating greenhouse gases. Aspen's card also urges customers to contact elected officials about climate change.

Company representatives, including chief executive Mike Kaplan, have lobbied and testified in Washington D.C. Aspen Skiing also filed an amicus brief in a major lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Massachusetts and other states and cities argued that the Environmental Protection Agency was obligated under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The court agreed in 2007, leading to the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electrical production 30 per cent by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.

The Clean Power Plan has been a fulcrum for ski industry advocacy in Utah and in New Hampshire.

Protect Our Winters (POW) has been active in coalescing support for the Clean Power Plan. The organization was formed in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones and grew to include other winter athletes. "Though we can dress up for meetings, in the end we are pro athletes, dirtbags and diehards; for us, winter is not just a passion, but a way of life," the organization's website explains.

Nathan Rafferty, chief executive of Ski Utah, a trade group, credits POW as the catalyst of change in his trade group. "I remember thinking it was the right fit," he says. "They are one of us." He says POW's message resonated with the directors of Ski Utah.

"They really focused on the good things, what can be done, as opposed to the sky is falling, which really doesn't leave a very good taste in our mouth," he says.

Ski Utah then began investing its political capital. "We have some serious political clout in this state," says Rafferty. "We are a $1.2 billion industry in the state, and in a state of three million people, that's a big deal. We feel the time is right to use that influence to make us a better place."

Rafferty credits — as do others —the skills of Chris Steinkamp, the director of POW. "He has a real reasonable tone about him, and with him at the helm, it gave us a comfort level that this was a group we could engage in. Our goal is just to amplify POW's voice and craft it in a way to use it locally, different than in California or in Colorado."

A former marketer, Steinkamp says POW has been downplaying the gloomy science of climate change for a year and a half because the science was understood. Too, people in the ski business were seeing the climate change personally.

"Everything that was being predicted was coming true. There wasn't any real upside to talk about the dire consequences any more. I think everybody had kind of understood that, and it was basically shutting people down," says Steinkamp.

At the same time, renewable energy has become cheaper and more effective. "We had solutions," says Steinkamp. Instead of the gloomy changes, POW could talk about solutions.

In Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley chief executive Andy Wirth has cited both economic and environmental reasons to support the Clean Power Plan in a September op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Wirth detected a shift in the ski industry about five years ago, but before that, the strongest voice came from the Aspen Skiing Co.'s Auden Schendler. His alarm-bell message wasn't particularly popular.

"Ten years ago Auden Schendler was considered a bit of a pariah," says Wirth. "There were folks in the industry who didn't think highly of him. He's now regarded as a pioneer, and he has the bumps and bruises and scars to prove that."

Schendler, now vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Co., acknowledges change. "I think I have evolved," he says. But the industry has also shifted toward his stance. NSAA's SustainableSlopes Program now requires advocacy, not just in-house energy reductions.