Why Have Ski Resorts Bought Into the Climate Denial Story?


In December of last year, a report was published by the National Resource Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, that was supposed to rock the ski resort industry. You’d think that a report called Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy would be taken seriously by the ski resort community – given that they, out of anyone, are completely dependent on climate. What I found was completely different.

A few weeks ago, I was on assignment for SNEWS for an article called Climate Change and the Outdoor Industry. The article doesn’t advocate for climate change, but rather, takes an objective business approach on how climate affects the profits and losses of certain industry segments – namely snow sports, bike, paddle and fly fishing. During that process, I interviewed several ski resorts (I won’t say who but you can see them in the article) who just simply would not admit that climate change was real or that it had any effect on the poor snowfall in the past two years. Even worse, none but Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability from the Aspen Skiing Company, had heard of this report – a report that got coverage from 250 major press organizations, made headline news and was co-written by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

How did our ski resorts buy into the Climate Denial story? Maybe because Frank Luntz (architect of the Climate Denial story) and Mitt Romney spoke at one the National Ski Areas Association’s annual events. The ski resort industry as a whole is made up of stark right wing conservatives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when you support an issue that is obviously not in your best interest, simply because it has been politicized. There is a problem when politics gets in the way of common sense.

Yoon Kim: Why is the ski resort community not aware of the report?
Auden Schendler: It speaks to the total disconnect of ski and climate. The report had 250 massive press heads, and it was covered in the New York Times, Outside magazine, Al Jazeera, and the PBS News Hours.
The ski industry doesn’t want the public to know the information on climate change because they’re terrified of it getting out in the open. The irony is the climate story is already out, so the ski industry should respond with, “This is the greatest opportunity to protect our sport for the long term,” but instead they haven’t seized climate as the key issue it ought to be. I skied with a guy from the East Coast today who said, “Okema is great, but I wonder if it’s too far out south.” That’s what the ski industry wants to avoid.

YK: What should resorts be doing?
AS:  Resorts should be making climate policy their number one priority in D.C. They should be educating their constituents because it’s their job to bring issues of importance like this to them. The resorts should also be hosting speakers at national conferences on climate science at the NSAA meetings. There was not one.

YK:  How much politicization is behind this?
AS:  It’s a trade group – Frank Luntz and Mitt Romney are both hardcore conservative. Luntz architected the Republican climate denial message. This is a trade group in the middle of it all, but it’s partisan and maybe even radically partisan. It doesn’t have to be this way – we the ski industry – and the National Ski Areas Association should be spending all our efforts to ensure the durability of our business. Yet when the POW NRDC Report cam out, NSAA basically sent out a preemptive press statement denying climate’s impact on the industry.

YK: Have you seen anything change in the time that you’ve been working at Aspen?
AS: I’ve been at Aspen for 13 years now. Anecdotally, last year it rained in February, and the year before on Christmas. Empirically, the frost-free-days-line is going up. We’re seeing that runoff comes earlier, spring comes earlier, and average temperature in Colorado is up way more than the rest of the nation.

YK:  How does bad snow affect jobs?
AS:  When the snow doesn’t come it costs money and jobs. If it’s not snowing, you don’t have to pay for the snow cat drivers. When it’s warm it’s much harder to make snow, and it costs a lot more. Those are a couple basic examples. But let’s look at a mountain community. There is some absolutely spectacular white water rafting in Colorado, but if runoff is three days and not six weeks, that’s not good for the business.

YK:  I’ve seen resorts responding by investing in stronger snow guns and moving to a four season model. What are other ways resorts have responded?
AS:  It’s not just more efficient snow guns – it’s really hard to make snow when it’s warm. So you make the snow when it’s cold, when it’s efficient, guns can have an impact on the base. That sort of thing is being seen everywhere. Summer is not a new thing. The cash flow model is like this: you run all your ski programs in the winter and take a deficit in the summer with mountain biking.

YK:  What are other things resorts are doing to combat warmer weather?
AS:  Some resorts are working on reducing their carbon footprint – but that’s just good business. It doesn’t solve climate at scale – it just cuts costs. NSAA’s Climate Progra is focused on operational carbon reduction at resorts, but that’s like taking a small fire extinguisher to a burning house and hoping to quell the flames.

YK:  What can the average skier do?
AS:  Write the CEO of your favorite ski resort and ask them what they’re doing on climate policy and say that you’ll ski somewhere else if they’re not doing anything. You can submit a letter to the editor of your local paper. Write NSAA itself. Post a discussion board on social media. Just do whatever you can to raise awareness, create citizenship, and move the policy needle.