Resorts get into global warming

Allen Best
Aspen, CO Colorado
Snow melting during a March warm spell on Vail Mountain. Worried climate change could create more of these scenes, the ski industry is for the first time calling for government action. (Dominique Taylor/Vail Daily file)

DENVER ” Ski industry representative Michael Berry testified before a U.S. Senate committee in late May about global warming. His message was one he could not have given several years ago.

“We said it’s time for action,” said Berry, who is president of the National Ski Areas Association, “and it’s time for the U.S. government, instead of dragging its feet at every opportunity, to take a leadership role in this worldwide.”

Make no mistake: the ski industry is changing. Four years ago the industry’s response was a cautious public relations campaign called “Keep Winter Cool.”

Some ski areas more privately remained dubious, and others reserved comment. Berry’s organization operates on the basis of quasi-consensus.

Aspen had long been among the few major ski areas that talked loudly about global warming.

Now, as demonstrated by Berry’s testimony before the Senate, the industry is at least speaking forcefully to the issue of humanity’s role in the changing climate.

“I think the rest of the industry has come forward in a rather dramatic fashion in the last four or five years,” Berry says. “No doubt Aspen was in the vanguard then but there’s not much difference in the industry now and what is going on at Aspen.”

Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s executive director for community and environmental responsibility, agrees.

“There’s been a sea change in the understanding of climate science, and the seriousness of the problem, within the ski industry in the last year.”

Berry’s testimony before the Senate committee, he adds, “was exactly what I would have given. It’s great to see this.”

The hearing was before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, noted in her statement that the length of the snow season decreased by 16 days between 1951 and 1996 in California and Nevada, according to a National Assessment report issued earlier this year.

California’s ski industry got off the climate-change fence five years ago, siding with legislators who wanted to mandate improved automobile efficiency.

“Our industry has graphic evidence that climate change is happening,” said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. “We pretty much subscribe (to global warming theory) across the board.”

Colorado ski area managers at their annual meeting this year talked about global warming ” a first.

With higher elevations, Colorado ski areas may actually benefit from global warming in the short run. In this scenario, people heading to Whistler, which has a top elevation of 7,160 feet, may instead go to Breckenridge, which has a base elevation of 9,600 feet.

Still, any gains will only be short-term. A study done as part of the Aspen municipal government’s Canary Initiative roughly calculated that Aspen’s climate will become like the existing climate of Amarillo, Texas, which is similar to Salt Lake City.

That’s a problem, said Robert Henson, a meteorologist who works for the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Speaking at the Colorado Ski Country meeting, he noted studies that suggest global warming may produce more snow in the northern Rockies. However, droughts could become more prolonged, particularly in the Southwest.

But without ambiguity the forecasts call for warmer and shorter winters. For every one-degree increase in temperature, he said, the snowline is expected to rise 300 feet in elevation. Some forecasts see temperatures increasing 10 degrees this century, given continued growth in greenhouse gases.

As to the cause of the changing climate, Henson said there is little doubt: Human-caused greenhouse gases, particularly the carbon dioxide created when burning coal, flying jets, or heating homes.

Resorts have a large carbon footprint. Aspen’s study found the per-capita emissions of its residents, workers and guests are double those of the U.S. The most salient emissions come from jet travel.

By the nature of questions at the annual meeting, Henson said he believes Colorado ski areas are “just beginning to grapple with the future of skiing itself, and how climate will affect them.”

What to do? The national ski industry hasn’t taken a formal position ” only that action is necessary.

Berry says a large group moves more slowly than individual ski areas.

For example, Aspen was talking sooner about carbon neutrality. But it’s now coming to the ski industry more generally.

“We are talking to the U.S. Ski Association about working with them to create carbon-neutral events,” says Berry.

In fact, the Colorado ski meeting was set up as a carbon-neutral event. Jen Schenk, environmental manager at Copper Mountain, the host of the meeting, told the Summit Daily News that Ski Country USA purchased renewable energy credits to offset the carbon travel created by the travel and lodging of the meeting participants.

Whether it’s truly possible for resorts to buy their way out of a carbon footprint is somewhat controversial, as it has been in the larger public”- a controversy readily acknowledged by Berry.

Since he arrived at Aspen in 1999, Schendler has been doing things like pushing conversion of light bulb to more efficient compact-fluorescent lights, and lobbying for elevated energy efficiency in the new real estate product being developed at Snowmass, one of Aspen’s four ski areas.

But Schendler says beyond action, the ski industry must speak loudly.

“The next step,” he says, “is to use the whole industry as a lobbying force to drive large scale, legislative change. This isn’t about making your resort more energy efficient. It’s about using the whole industry as a club to beat our legislators into action.”

Some thinkers, such as Amory Lovins, a physicist and the co-founder of the Snowmass-based Rocky Mountain Institute, believe existing lifestyles can largely be maintained by technical innovation and making better use of existing energy.

Roberts, of the California ski organization, said he is sure that the future is not bleak. California, with its mandated energy efficiency, is now consuming 50 percent fewer hydrocarbons, yet the economy continues to grow.

“The train,” he says, “has already left the station here.”