With rising global temperatures threatening to limit the skiing season and even warm some resorts out of existence, major ski companies are turning to their customers for help in the fight against climate change. Their goal: turn millions of snow-lovers into climate voters.
"The industry's much bigger, much more rabid, maybe more powerful and wealthy than the gun lobby, and yet we have no power," said Aspen Ski Co.'s Auden Schendler, pointing out that 10 million skiers logged about 59 million visits to U.S. resorts last winter.
"How do you mobilize that?" he asked. "Weaponize the outdoor community as a political movement."
That means venturing beyond the corporate sustainability campaigns already underway at resorts and ski companies, such as pressing local utilities to switch from coal to renewables, signing letters to policy makers and sending snow sport celebrities to lobby Congress.
Winter sports companies are now trying to mobilize those millions of skiers, snowboarders and other winter enthusiasts into a passionate political force for action on climate change by encouraging them to contact policy makers, vote for climate-friendly candidates and spread the word about climate change in their circles. The 2020 elections could become a proving ground for this new strategy to mix politics and play.
The winter sports industry knows it is facing an uncertain future.
One analysis, from a 2018 report by scientists with Climate Impact Lab, predicts that the number of days with below-freezing temperatures in Truckee, California, could shrink from 41 to 8 on average by the end of the century, and from 196 days to 141 at Stowe, Vermont. Rocky Mountain resorts, like Breckenridge and Taos, can expect their low-temperature days to decline by as much as one-third.
Another study, published in 2017, found that climate change will shorten the winter recreation season across the U.S., with half as many downhill skiing days in some places by 2050 and up to 80 percent fewer by 2090.
"We estimate these season-length changes could result in millions to tens of millions of foregone recreational visits annually by 2050, with an annual monetized impact of hundreds of millions of dollars," the study said. "Limiting global greenhouse gas emissions could both delay and substantially reduce adverse impacts to the winter recreation industry."
It's not just snow sports at risk. Mountain communities depend on agriculture, and mountain ecologies support wildlife, along with water storage for farmers, aquaculture, livestock and forestry.
Ski Resorts Have Started Cutting Their Own Emissions
Staring down that chilling reality, resorts have been focused so far on reducing their own carbon footprints.
At the climate-focused Mountain Towns Summit 2030 in Park City, Utah, this past fall, four major resort operators touted accomplishments like supplanting coal-fired power with renewables and adopting composting and recycling to reduce food waste at their lodges. But speaker after speaker conceded that resorts can't solve climate change on their own.
"Mountain towns are comprised of passionate citizens, vibrant businesses and natural splendor," and climate change threatens their economic stability, snowfall and way of life, local officials point out in a pact that was signed by more than 40 summit attendees, including government agencies, cities, counties, nonprofits and businesses.
"The climate crisis is the defining issue of our generation and must be addressed at all levels. As leaders in mountain communities, it is our obligation to address this issue in a bold, timely, and meaningful way," they wrote.
The signers pledged to be net-zero carbon emitters by 2030 and described steps they're taking to educate visitors about climate change and turn them into advocates for climate-friendly policies.
Laura Schaffer, sustainability director for Powdr, which operates the Snowbird resort in Utah and Killington Ski resort in Vermont, said visitors can expect to see more educational programs, such as one promoting sustainable behavior at the Killington ski school and the company's campaign to protect the environment so skiers can "play forever."
At Alterra Mountain Co. resorts, Sustainability Vice President David Perry said it's time to counter the climate change disinformation campaigns used by fossil-fuel companies and their supporters.
"They've changed a lot of minds to their disinformation campaign over a long period of time, and it's been incredibly effective," Perry said. "So we [ski companies] are on the back foot in a lot of these conversations. Guests are more receptive to communication when they're on vacation, and we are going to be taking advantage of that."
Getting Politicians to 'Give a Fl*ke' About Climate Change
Aspen decided years ago that the risk of driving away some customers wasn't nearly as threatening as climate change, and it has become the industry leader in climate outreach. On chairlifts, guests might find a quote from Pope Francis about the need to reduce the human harm to the climate. Throughout the Aspen Snowmass resort, staff members have been trained to talk about climate change and the threat it poses to winter recreation
There's also "Give A Flake," Aspen's marketing campaign to turn winter sports enthusiasts into climate policy advocates with easy-to-share social media messages and postcards that praise politicians who #GiveAFlake about climate change—and needle those who don't. In 2018, "Give A Flake" was responsible for a million postcards targeting three swing-state Republican senators who, while they don't reject climate science, "haven't really done anything" about it, in Schendler's view.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has been one of the few Republicans willing to talk about climate change concerns, hosted climate solutions hearings last spring, just months after being targeted by a "Give A Flake" campaign that criticized her record. When "Give A Flake" ran an ad in Outside Magazine targeting her the previous fall, she responded and got into a public exchange with Schendler in letters to the magazine over her climate record.
Aspen visitors also see the "Protect Our Winters" logo on employee uniforms, which refers to an athlete-led climate-action nonprofit that's been breaking trail for the winter sports community's public engagement effort for more than a decade.
'We Can Turn Our Passion Into Purpose'
POW previously used a more traditional approach to raising awareness about climate change. To spur fans to become more politically active, snow sport stars like POW founder and professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones have testified before Congress and are featured in videos urging outdoor recreationists to get political about climate change.
This year, POW has a strategic plan to get out the vote, with an eye on more than 34 million Americans who identify themselves as climbers, skiers/snowboarders, trail runners or mountain bikers—roughly 25 percent of the 2016 election voters.
"With the right tools, these Americans—this passionate outdoor community of ours—can be the difference in addressing the climate crisis," POW Executive Director Mario Molina, who previously served as international director for The Climate Reality Project, wrote in the strategic plan. "Connected by our shared love of the outdoors, we can turn our passion into purpose and then into results."
The group's 2020 game plan is to secure pledges from 40,000 people in Maine, New Hampshire and parts of Nevada, Colorado, Michigan and North Carolina to vote with climate as a top priority. POW is volunteering to help host 100 community events in these priority areas that feature outdoor athletes, and it is planning contests to engage more people on the issue.
"We need to continue to validate personal experience with scientific facts—that's a powerful combination," said Molina, who sees the thrill of snow sports as a powerful impetus for inspiring outdoor recreation enthusiasts to press politicians on climate change.
Molina wants to shift people's thinking so personal climate action takes on new meaning beyond simply recycling or driving a hybrid. He wants outdoor enthusiasts to see voting as a powerful tool for fighting climate change.
"If we were to get a million people to call their representatives once a month," he said, "we would see different results coming out of both our state and federal legislatures."
"The ski industry, particularly, has potential to wield incredible political power," Molina said, if it is able to motivate guests to become climate advocates, "let's just say how the NRA recruits people at gun shows."
Some in the ski industry cringe at the comparison. They also look at some of the negative attention Patagonia attracted when it opposed President Donald Trump's move to downsize the Bears Ears National Monument. Its open resistance to Trump administration policies was targeted on social media with a #BoycottPatagonia effort.
Despite the pushback from some quarters, Patagonia CEO Rose Mercario has called the response to the company's environmental campaigns "overwhelmingly positive."
Ski Industry Has Been Ramping Up Activism
The ramp-up of political activism around climate change has been underway in the background in the outdoor recreation industry for years. Ski companies are part of the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership, the U.S. Business Climate Action Contribution Platform and We Are Still In, the coalition supporting Paris Accord climate-pollution reduction goals after the Trump administration announced the United States would pull out.
The Boulder, Colorado-based Outdoor Industry Association began arguing with Utah's Republican leaders over a decade ago about state policies on public lands. The fight played out over the industry's twice-yearly trade shows in Salt Lake City as the outdoor industry, with a national economic impact of $887 billion spending and 7.6 million jobs, tried to make the political case for a healthy environment.
But after Utah Republicans called on the Trump administration to strip national monument protections from 2 million acres of public land in the state three years ago, OIA responded swiftly by relocating its big trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver—a move estimated to cost to Utah's convention business $1 billion over a decade.
"Brands are seeing that they can utilize their voice to encourage and push for action and de-polarize the climate arena," said Andrew Pappas, manager of state and local policy at OIA.
Schendler, the Aspen executive, said the outdoor recreation industry is taking too long to engage customers on climate change. He said "Give A Flake" will be targeting Trump on his climate position in 2020.
"People say, 'Your business is the ski business—just do skiing'," Schendler explains. "We say, 'This is business. We are threatened—we are threatened today with going out of business.'"
Top photo credit: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images