How the Ski Industry Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Climate Activism

How the Ski Industry Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Climate Activism
November 18, 2021 Eos

By Jenessa Duncombe, Eos

This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


An interview with the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, made its way around the Internet faster than locals flocking to the first chair on a powder day. In the 2019 interview, Kasper told a Swiss newspaper that he preferred working with dictators to environmentalists and that there is no proof of “so-called” climate change. The International Ski Federation represents more than a hundred national ski organizations in the world and organizes the Olympic ski events.

Many did not take kindly to Kasper’s remarks. Days after an English translation of snippets from the interview was published in the sports publication Deadspin, the outdoor community sent a letter with nearly 9,000 signatures to the federation demanding that Kasper step down.

The letters said that climate change threatens the existence of the ski industry and that Kasper’s comments went against the experience of resorts that have already closed because of climate change. “Kasper’s remarks should disqualify him for a leadership position in any business capacity, let alone that of a ski federation,” read the letter from the nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW).

Kasper apologized, and 7 months later, the International Ski Federation signed on to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework. This year, Kasper retired after 23 years as president and was replaced by a candidate, Johan Eliasch, endorsed by John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate.

The shift in perspective symbolized by Kasper’s final years in office reflects a concern by the industry that winter may become a shell of its former self. Already, the snow-water equivalent in the western United States has dropped 41% since the early 1980s, and the ski season has decreased by 34 days. Half of all Northeast ski resorts may go out of business by 2050, and climate modeling predicts that 90% of ski resorts in the West won’t be financially viable by 2085 if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curtailed. Not that they’ll have much to drink anyway: snow melt provides up to 75% of the water supply in western states.

Until recently, “there was an ethos within the outdoor industry and even the outdoor community to try and remain apolitical, and [these groups] saw climate change as a political issue,” said Mario Molina, executive director of POW, which organized the letter campaign to oust Kasper.

Social media abuse would rain down on those daring to mention climate change, Molina said. Trolls descended on athletes speaking about climate, telling them to stick to their sport. Resorts risked angering customers when unleashing new sustainability initiatives.

Outdoor enthusiasts remained ambivalent. A 2020 POW report focused on the United States concluded that members of the community—people striving for physical sensations, for inner well-being, or to achieve new personal records—”are not prime candidates for abstract communal action.”

But the same report showed that 90% of outdoor enthusiasts think climate change is caused by humans. The report also found that people who participate in outdoor sports are politically diverse: Democrats make up 40% of outdoor enthusiasts, whereas 31% are Republican and 29% identify as independent. The results were based on surveys of 2,100 people across a variety of sports, interviews with professional athletes, and online focus groups.

Skiing and snowboarding produce greenhouse gas emissions by powering ski lifts, snowmaking, and lodges. Tourists fly and drive across the world to ski, staying in chateaus and drinking at heated outdoor bars. But cutting their emissions won’t stop global climate change.

“Even a victory like a large corporation cutting its carbon footprint by 30 percent—the stuff of Shazam-level super-heroism and incredibly difficult to pull off—wouldn’t even dent the climate problem,” wrote Aspen Skiing Company senior vice president of sustainability Auden Schendler in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2021. “Systemic change is the only path to climate stability.”

For their sport to survive climate change, skiers will need to not only cut their emissions (see downhill emissions) but also somehow convince the rest of the world to cut its as well.

Because the industry’s longevity relies on the actions of others, it has been slowly emerging as a vocal advocate for broad-based systemic climate reform. Activists have been spinning two webs of influence to enact change: (1) creation of an influencer-led, identity-driven voter bloc and (2) a jobs-first pitch to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The NRA of Skiing

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is not a group most would associate with skiers and snowboarders. But Schendler said the cohorts have more in common than you might expect.

“Think about gun owners, and then think about who’s just as amped up, passionate, influential, wealthy, crazed? Well, it’s the outdoor [community]. These are all fanatics,” he said. Just look at how they spend their time: Skiers hit the slopes wearing garbage bags in the rain. Climbers live in their vans chasing the next project. Runners don headlamps to clock kilometers before dawn. “This is an unmobilized cohort that could swing elections.”“It’s a very similar group if you think about why they’re motivated,” Schendler said. “They’re gun people in the same way that I have a friend who says, ‘I don’t climb, I’m a climber.’ ‘I don’t ski, I’m a skier.’”

If emissions remain unchecked, the snow season will be cut at least in half by midcentury at many ski resorts in the contiguous United States. (Credit: NOAA)

The NRA has outsized power in Washington despite its middle-of-the-road spending on lobbying. As Gallup reports, although most people in the United States approve of gun control, Congress hasn’t imposed tighter regulations (bit.ly/Gallup-gun-control).

Even the NRA’s election spending is a fraction of what companies or individuals invest in attempting to sway polls.

“The NRA is not successful because of its money. To be sure, it is hard to be a force in American politics without money. The NRA has money that it uses to help its favored candidates get elected. But the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA, School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, told the Guardian in 2018. The organization remains one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

POW mobilizes its base by reframing the political identity of an outdoors person, complete with voter guides and influencers. No longer are skiers and snowboarders just people who like chasing powder for fun; they are citizens of the “Outdoor State,” a body politic that demands their allegiance and fidelity.As the chairperson of POW’s board, Schendler has talked about the NRA as an inspiration for years. POW’s mission is to mobilize millions of outdoorsy people to climate action. Although POW originally focused on snow sports like skiing and snowboarding, the organization’s target demographic now includes climbers, trail runners, and bikers as well.

The Influencer Economy

Professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones founded POW in 2007, and ever since, the organization has recruited a collection of famous athletes to spread its message. “What makes POW different and unique—and I think where our potential really lies—is in this cadre of influencers,” Molina said.

The more than 100 athletes in POW’s alliance program have received training in science, advocacy, and clean energy. In exchange, they agree to appear at a certain number of public speaking events, to write op-eds and social media posts, and to generally exist as POW ambassadors. The arrangement is somewhat like the billion-dollar industry of influencers who represent corporate brands on Instagram and other social media sites. But most of POW’s athletes volunteer their time apart from four paid “team lead” athletes who manage volunteers.

In the U.S. Senate race in Montana in 2018, POW athletes rallied around Democratic candidate Jon Tester, a two-term senator with a proenvironment voting history.Premier athletes like skier Hilaree Nelson, who boasts the first ski descent of the fourth-highest peak in the world (Lhotse, in China and Nepal), touts POW to her 59,200 followers on Instagram. Tommy Caldwell, a world-famous rock climber (821,000 Instagram followers), endorsed Joe Biden for president because of his climate-friendly policies and hosted an event with the League of Conservation Voters to get out the vote in 2020. Endurance runner Clare Gallagher (44,500 Instagram followers) penned an op-ed in UltraRunning magazine in April 2021 on coping with climate anxiety.

Mountaineer Conrad Anker of Bozeman and fly-fisher Hilary Hutcheson of the greater Missoula area led the charge. The two gave press interviews, wrote op-eds, and posted on social media in support of Tester, all of which POW shared with its followers through social media, email, and the web, said Auden. Tester won by nearly 18,000 votes.

Although it’s unclear how much POW played a role in Tester’s victory, athletes drawing in incremental votes is exactly the organization’s mission, Schendler said.

Other organizations also target environmentally conscious voters. The nonprofit Environmental Voter Project (EVP) reaches out to people who consider the environment one of their main political issues but visit the polls only in presidential elections. This cohort could pack a punch: An EVP report from this year found that environmental voters could swing 2022 midterms in six purple states if they showed up. These voters are predominantly young, female, and disproportionately Hispanic, Asian American, and Pacific Islander.

Like POW, EVP wants to remake the model of a “good environmentalist” from someone who recycles or is a  vegetarian into someone who votes in all elections, big or small.

Consumer preferences force businesses to adapt, too. A 2016 study of 83 Western ski resorts published in Strategic Management Journal found that “environmental institutional pressures”— defined as regulatory, normative, and cultural pressures—have led to increased adoption of climate change mitigation practices by resorts. These pressures were more successful at forcing resorts to adapt than were the adverse effects of climate change itself.

On the retail side, 82 brands have now joined POW’s brand alliance by giving $5,000 or more to the nonprofit. Burton and Patagonia have both contributed more than $150,000.In June, four of the biggest North American ski resort companies (Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, POWDR, and Boyne Resorts) signed a charter to enforce, among other things, unity in climate advocacy.

The recent events suggest that athletes, resorts, and brands agree that talking about climate change is now fair game. POW’s Molina credits his organization for this shift in opinion. “I think we were able to actually nudge the entire industry into the realization that civic engagement is not a political activity,” he said.

The next question is, What will the industry and its fans do with their newly found voice?

From the Statehouse to Capitol Hill

Fifty million Americans participate in outdoor sports, and the pandemic inspired many to visit parks for the first time. Although it’s easy to think of a solo paddle or a hike through a reclusive forest as far from an economic activity, outdoor adventures leave a trail of money in their wake: The gear. The clothing. The transportation. The marathon registration. The cabin. The after-trip milkshake.

But climate change threatens that money train: U.S. downhill skiing, just one subset of the outdoor economy, lost $1.07 billion over a decade because of lower snow years between 1999 and 2010, according to a 2012 POW and Natural Resources Defense Council report. This downturn led to a loss of up to 27,000 jobs, a drop in unemployment of as much as 13%.

Since the release of that 2012 report, there’s been a race to calculate just how much outdoor recreation is worth. POW releases estimates, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has reported its own, and more estimates are in the works.

In 2016, Congress passed an order for a thorough assessment of how much money the outdoor sector contributes to the U.S. economy. The Bureau of Economic Analysis set up a special fund for this purpose and in 2020 published a tally: $459.8 billion of current-dollar gross domestic product came from outdoor recreation in 2019. (The amount is half of the current-dollar gross domestic product from all arts and cultural activity in the country in 2019.)

According to a 2017 OIA report, American consumers spend about $887 billion on outdoor recreation annually. That is more than they spend directly on pharmaceuticals and fossil fuels combined.

These billions of dollars in market power form the backbone of lobbying by the outdoor industry. “It literally changed the conversation in Washington,” said advocacy lead Chris Steinkamp at Snowsports Industries America (SIA), who led POW previously.

Before hard economic numbers appeared, the ski industry appealed to lawmakers by expressing a love of winter and a fear of its expiration date. Now advocates tout the sector’s economic contribution to the U.S. economy. In Colorado alone, the ski industry generates $4.8 billion annually, according to a study by Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts.

Trade Organizations Band Together Amid Criticism

In 2019, SIA partnered with two other outdoor trade organizations to amplify their voices in Washington. Their goal is to use a jobs-first agenda to spur legislative climate wins.

The Outdoor Business Climate Partnership (OBCP) combines the power of SIA, which is a collection of winter recreation retailers, suppliers, resorts, and sales reps; the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which includes more than 300 alpine ski resorts and more than 400 suppliers; and OIA, an industry heavy hitter that represents 1,200 businesses in outdoor sports from big names like REI to small family shops.

The new partnership targets lawmakers in such states as Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, where recreation is a major part of the state’s economy. OBCP’s priorities include putting a price on carbon, passing a clean energy standard, and supporting clean transportation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have aligned with OBCP. The partnership hosted Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse from Colorado and Republican Rep. John Curtis of Utah at a virtual event earlier this year, for instance.

Bipartisanship is at the heart of OBCP’s mission. “We can’t shame our elected officials into agreeing with us,” said Steinkamp. “We have to be allies and not adversaries.”

Steinkamp said that OBCP doesn’t spend time talking to or supporting lawmakers who are climate skeptics, however. Instead, they home in on Republicans like Curtis, who recently launched a conservative climate caucus.

“We were very strategic with the name because we wanted to be very clear that we were embracing the science with climate, but that we were conservatives,” Curtis said of the caucus in an interview with C-SPAN. “Today there are 65 members. It grows every day.”

Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada dropped sharply in 2015 (left) compared with 2010 (right). (Credit: Jesse Allen/NASA)

The industry’s cross-party approach has attracted criticism, however.

The political contributions of ski resorts and their executives came under scrutiny following a 2016 article by Porter Fox in Powder magazine. Fox, a former Powder editor and author of Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, wrote that industry tycoons such as executives from Vail Resorts and Jackson Hole gave money to candidates or political action committees with a record of opposing climate legislation, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Three years later in an opinion piece in the New York Times, Fox responded. Supporting candidates who bolster year-round activities and water rights but not climate isn’t enough, he wrote. “The time for soft-pedaling passed decades ago. At this very late stage in the game, the snow sports world needs decisive action.”In a rebuttal, NSAA director of public policy Geraldine Link wrote, “The ski industry, like every other industry, is not ‘single-issue’ in its approach to advocacy.” Republican candidates who were singled out in the article helped protect water rights and support year-round activities, she wrote. “We should be thanking these members of Congress, not attacking them.”

To achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting average global warming to 1.5°C, relative to pre-industrial temperatures, the world will need to phase out all carbon emissions by 2040. Humanity has made some progress: Before the Paris Agreement was reached, we were headed toward 3.6°C warming. Now we’ve got that down to 2.9°C.

But we have a long way to go: 2°C would still bring catastrophic climate impacts. And the world will need to make emissions cuts like those from the COVID-19 shutdowns every year for the next decade to keep warming below 1.5°C.

Charting a Line for Years to Come

Famed alpinist and POW athlete Graham Zimmerman spent much of his twenties chasing peaks around the world. Even though he studied glaciohydrology in college, he pushed climate change to the back of his mind. And when he did think of it, he felt guilty for all the plane flights, car rides, and gear he tore through as an international athlete.

But in the 20-minute documentary An Imperfect Advocate from Outside TV, Zimmerman argued that climate activism is for everyone—even those with large carbon footprints. We see Zimmerman calling his representatives and visiting statehouses, high schools, and universities to talk up climate change policy.

“Our goal with solving the climate crisis is not to stop traveling, or stop heating our homes,” Zimmerman said. Instead, it’s to continue to do the things that “inspire us and drive us” but with carbon-neutral or carbon-efficient technologies. “And that all comes from government.”

An Imperfect Advocate represents a tension in climate activism that goes back decades. To halt carbon emissions and slow global warming, should individuals put their energy toward cutting their carbon footprint? Or should people focus on calling for top-down regulation from lawmakers? And what if the emitter isn’t a person, but an industry? Must an industry walk the walk before sticking its neck out for systemic change?

“The outdoor industry and winter sports industry are not the largest carbon emitters, but we rely on those larger [emitting] sectors like transportation and electricity,” said Amy Horton, senior director of sustainable business innovation at OIA. The dependence on these carbon-heavy activities is a catch-22: Carbon pollution is still needed to bring customers, but it’s also slowly eroding away the sport’s future.

review of 119 research studies of climate change risk to ski tourism across 27 countries, shows clearly that the industry is in for a shake-up. Resorts can’t depend on natural snow anymore. They’ll need to pump more water and burn more power to make artificial snow, ski areas will close, ski seasons will shrink and shift, ski markets will bend and morph as skiers travel for snow or give up the sport altogether, and real estate values will shoot up or down accordingly.

The industry finds itself at a crossroads that environmental activists have long pondered: How can climate policy pass in the United States when the politics remain so divisive?

Steinkamp of OBCP doesn’t think the discussions over the past 10 years demanding immediate action have spurred productive policy, however. Although bipartisanship “takes time,” he said, “I think this is where we see the long-lasting change happening.”

POW has put its bet with a strong voter base of outdoors people—a group that overwhelmingly believes in climate change but is politically diverse—who it says could sway elections. OBCP is betting on forging relationships with emerging Republicans who believe in climate change to adopt climate legislation.

“I think this ship is slowly moving in the right direction,” Molina said of recent partnerships in the outdoor industry. “The next year or two will actually show us how many of the new coalitions and groups that have emerged are going to really put their weight behind the statements.”

Catch more news on Great Lakes Now: 

COVID-19 pushed people outdoors. Michigan’s ski industry is ready for them.

4 unexpected places where adults can learn science

Michigan parks are popular, but underfunded. They want some COVID money.

Featured image: Man skiing (Photo Credit: Sandra Svoboda)


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