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Words into Action Yes, But What Action?

I completely sympathize with Bob Berwyn’s objectives in his piece on how skiers need to turn words into action. And indeed, I applaud the fact that he’s asking “what can we do in the face of weak (or worse) climate policy for at least the next four years?,” because that’s the key question we need to be asking in order to play the strategy game of Climate Chess.

But unfortunately, the actions he’s suggesting are very weak chess pieces on the board. While individuals need to understand the idea of their carbon footprints, committing to reduce your carbon footprint to be in line with the Paris Agreement is not really a strategy. Let’s say a million people went with the idea; that only leaves 7 billion people and change who won’t. But doesn’t every little bit help? Psychologically perhaps, but not in terms of climate change. When it comes to Climate Chess we need to find things to do that might actually make a difference.

And while the idea of buying carbon offsets is a common one, and while I helped pioneer carbon offsets 28 years ago, the reality is that most of the carbon offsets you can buy on the market today aren’t likely to actually do anything about climate change (that’s a whole different conversation — but unfortunately it’s true).

Let’s think about the skiing industry and climate change more systematically for a minute:

1. The handwriting has been on the wall for quite some time when it comes to skiing and climate. When we had a terrible snow year a couple of years ago in Portland, OR I cynically told our German exchange student to look on the bright side, “you’ll be able to boast you were on one of the last ski teams!” Absent artificial (and very energy intensive) fake snow, it’s not a pretty picture for skiing.

2. As the industry has gotten more sensitive to the issue, the big focus seems to be on adaptation (petting zoos is one particularly innovative idea!). And a growing focus on branding, including through “green energy branding.” It seems a bit of an odd focus — will such branding influence the number of people going skiing, or where they go skiing?

3. Since nothing the industry does directly in terms of emissions reductions will make any difference to climate change, particularly in the near- to mid-term, you’d think the industry would be one of those most advocating rapid and dramatic national policy initiatives, and one of the least likely to embrace greenwashing. Neither of these has been true. Why is that?

4. Even today, when the industry has begun calling for climate policy, the calls are very vague (and certainly not calling for the kinds of policy that could hope to have any impact on skiing itself). It’s been recently documented that the industry is even funding climate deniers with its donations. How the industry is defining self-interest is indeed curious.

5. The industry has been signing letters, including in the lead-up to COP21, characterizing climate change as a huge economic opportunity. While it’s been reported that snow-making is a big climate opportunity for the companies making the machines, I have trouble seeing how climate change itself or climate change mitigation can be seen as an “opportunity” for the industry in the face of what has to be seen as an existential threat. You’d think they’d have come up with a different letter.

6. While the Sustainable Slopes initiative now requires advocacy as part of membership, one of the elements of that declaration is the education of skiiers on the threat posed by climate change to their sport. I have not seen a single news story talking about such a communications campaign, much less anything that would seem commensurate with the level of threat.

8. Here’s what I think is one of the biggest interesting questions. The skiing industry is calling for policy. Do those calls encompass a carbon price? And if so, a carbon price high enough to make any difference on climate change? That’s particularly relevant because 1) it would make industry adaptation via artificial snow MUCH more expensive, and 2) still wouldn’t have enough of a near-term impact on climate change to save much if any of the industry. So adopting a robust carbon price would only hasten the industry’s demise. Now THAT is a challenging Catch-22!

So the topic of skiing and climate change is a tricky one. It would be great for skiiers to get more active in the climate conversation, but not by focusing primarily on personal actions and behaviors — that’s not where they can make a difference. We do need to play Climate Chess, but we need to play it well!

If you want to further explore the “skiing and climate conversation,” you can take a look at the I:Skiing index term here in the Climate Web, where a lot of resources are pulled together. To better understand the Climate Web, watch the short explanation video at

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