Can Skiing Survive Climate Change? : Short Wave Climate change poses an existential threat to the ski industry. A warmer climate means less snow and less now menas a shorter season for snowboarders and skiiers. NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler first covered the issue 15 years ago as local station reporter in Aspen. Now he returns to that world-renowned destination and tells Short Wave co-host Aaron Scott about one resort's efforts to push the nation toward clean energy while it continues catering to the carbon-generating, jet-set crowd.

Check out Kirk's full All Things Considered story here: n.pr/3rse2xP

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Can Skiing Survive Climate Change?

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

AARON SCOTT, HOST:

Hello, SHORT WAVErs. Aaron Scott here. And today, we have a visit from Kirk Siegler. Hello there, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hey, Aaron.

SCOTT: So I'm guessing that as an NPR correspondent covering the Western states, you've basically become a de facto climate reporter.

SIEGLER: Right. I mean, I think you could probably say that about any beat anywhere right now.

SCOTT: Fair.

SIEGLER: But it just feels like here in the West, climate change just sort of touches everything we do and every part of life, from water to recreation. And coming off this winter, kind of a mediocre winter for both water storage and skiing, the winter's already gotten 30 days shorter since 1980.

SCOTT: Wow.

SIEGLER: You see climate change everywhere, even in billboards for ski resorts on the side of the freeway, all about how they're trying to make skiing green and go 100% renewable energy.

SCOTT: I mean, they've got to confront it somehow because climate change is an existential threat for the sport of skiing. And yet it's not like it's anything new. This is something that we've been dealing with for decades now. And as I understand, it's something that you reported on way back in 2006.

SIEGLER: Right. Here comes the wayback machine.

SCOTT: (Laughter).

SIEGLER: It was actually one of the first stories, I think, that I ever filed for NPR as a freelancer at a member station in Aspen, actually, Aspen, Colo. And at that time, Aspen was kind of an outlier in the ski industry, which was mostly promoting glossy ads, which you might expect. Come to our resorts. Come experience the glory of winter. And even back then in 2006, Aspen's ad campaign was focused on how climate change is going to potentially end skiing. Well, it piqued my interest and also editors at NPR.

SCOTT: All right, Kirk. Well, let us jump in the time machine and travel back.

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SIEGLER: In his cramped office, Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Company's director of environmental affairs, skims through glossy pages of the latest ski magazine.

AUDEN SCHENDLER: You can just flip every page in this magazine. And you'll see, you know, here's an ad for Heavenly. It's a skier enjoying wonderful powder.

SIEGLER: Schendler eventually finds what he's looking for. It's an ad by his company showing a picture of the resort's Highlands Bowl. The bowl is an icon to extreme skiing junkies - except in this ad, you can't really see the bowl because it's covered by a huge melting snowflake. A hot, red sky forms the backdrop. The word snow and endangered species are featured prominently. Schendler says the ads are meant to highlight a sense of urgency about what climate change means for skiing.

SCHENDLER: The ski industry is a weird beast. You're basically running at a deficit until March 1. And then you make all your profit in March. Climate change is going to shrink our seasons. If we lose March, we go out of business.

SIEGLER: Schendler says the ads are radical, and he's not sure other resorts will go as far.

SCOTT: (Laughter) Kirk, how does it feel to listen back to 2006 Kirk?

SIEGLER: Do I have to answer that?

SCOTT: No, no.

SIEGLER: The wayback machine is quite a trip, let's say. But it's interesting hearing that because the ski industry is still a weird beast. It's definitely still running a deficit until March 1. And pretty much across the West, if not much of the country this year, that's been totally the case because they had such a long drought in the middle of the season. And then spring break comes in March and into April right now. And it's kind of a make-or-break time for the industry's bottom line. And we're talking a $50 billion industry in North America.

SCOTT: They haven't yet gone out of business, but has anything changed since you reported on this back in 2006?

SIEGLER: Well, Aaron, that's what I wanted to find out. So today on the show, we're going to look at how ski resorts are confronting these long droughts and climate change and asking a question that kind of even felt a little bit unthinkable even 15 years ago - does skiing even have a future? I'm Kirk Siegler.

SCOTT: And I'm Aaron Scott. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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SCOTT: So, Kirk, the ski industry is on this, like, slope-side collision course of many of today's most challenging issues. I mean, there's not just climate change and drought. There is also income inequality, labor shortages, outrageous real estate prices, so much more. So where are we going to start this new story you did? With fun?

SIEGLER: No. The tarmac at the airport because most skiers, as you know, don't actually live next to the ski resorts. We're going to begin with the irony of, myself included, an avid skier having to burn fossil fuels to get to these mostly isolated mountain resorts that are dependent on cold, snowy winters. And we're making the problem worse. So you've got the traffic jams on the freeways and highways that connect the cities to the resorts. And then there are the jet setters. I mean, the ski industry has marketed itself lately as a luxurious destination, people coming from around the world to world-famous ski resorts like Aspen, Colo. When I visited there again, I was standing at the tiny Aspen airport. And what went through my mind? "Succession." Are there any "Succession" fans out there? Logan Roy - his huge jets. Well, at the Aspen airport, I couldn't help but think of that as I stood watching a line of private jets queuing along the runway, "Succession" style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SIEGLER: Looking at one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 private jets just right here. These are big planes. These look like they could be commercial airline jets.

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SIEGLER: Aspen, where old hippies and extreme skiers share the slopes with celebrities and royalty, is a familiar punching bag. And the Aspen Ski Company's vice president of sustainability, Auden Schendler, is used to the shots.

SCHENDLER: If you're saying greed drives our industry, you're essentially attacking capitalism as a whole. We're not going to eliminate capitalism, but we could fix it. What does that look like? It would look like, for example, a national carbon tax. We're advocating for that.

SIEGLER: Schendler and company executives also convinced this valley's utility to disconnect from fossil fuel electricity. And they were the only resort to join a lawsuit defending the Biden administration's freeze on new oil and gas leasing on public land.

SCHENDLER: Call us hypocrites. Call us whatever you want if we're not doing that work. But don't tell me, ah, you're using carbon; therefore, you can't talk. That's what the fossil fuel industry wants us to do - is to not do anything and not change the system.

SIEGLER: Getting off the Aspen Mountain Gondola, skiers are greeted by a dystopian exhibit. Here, where tourists usually snap photos of the stunning vistas of the Elk Mountains, there's a gondola car lying tilted on the snow.

SCHENDLER: It looks like you took a gondola cabin and put it on a hot street, and it melted like a scoop of ice cream.

SIEGLER: It's meant to alarm Aspen's powerful and moneyed guests into action.

SCHENDLER: I've always been concerned that warming would end the ski industry. It will. And by the way, yeah, we'll be the last resort standing because you and I are at 11,000 feet right now. But that doesn't help us. If the mom-and-pop ski resort in Jersey goes away, those are our future clients.

SIEGLER: Is the melted gondola gimmick working? Jacob Philip (ph), who's visiting from California, didn't notice.

JACOB PHILIP: You know, there's a lot of concerns that I have right now in life in the United States, in life in Los Angeles, where we live. You know, whether my ski season gets a little bit shorter because of climate change is, you know, probably - you know, maybe makes the top 200. I don't know who makes the top 150.

SIEGLER: Philip's ski season is already about a month shorter. The temperature has risen by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the Colorado Rockies since 1980. What does that mean? Here's Ashley Perl, who's in charge of the city of Aspen's climate response.

ASHLEY PERL: In my lifetime here in Aspen - so since 1980 - we've lost 30 frozen days. So we have 30 more frost-free days than we used to.

SIEGLER: The shortening winter here is so alarming that city leaders recently cited the climate crisis as one reason for temporarily banning all new residential construction. A perennial controversy is that many of this town's workers have to commute in to build and maintain luxury, energy-sucking homes that are empty most of the year.

PERL: Our workforce comes from a long way away to keep this town running. That comes with emissions from traffic. And our visitors come on their private jets, which has a lot of emissions associated with it. And that's always been the dichotomy of Aspen.

SIEGLER: But with the affordable housing crisis colliding with climate anxiety, things have felt especially tense here this winter.

TIM MOONEY: It's very scary for a lot of people.

SIEGLER: Tim Mooney (ph) has also lived in Aspen for most of his life.

MOONEY: Skiing is going to change. The planet is going to change. And the guys who are stealing all the money that have the private jets that live in the castles aren't going to give a [expletive] because they have staff, and they can go to wherever the weather is.

SIEGLER: Mooney says the ultrawealthy will just go somewhere else when climate change ends skiing in Colorado, leaving locals to worry about the future of their snow-dependent towns.

SCOTT: Kirk, I love that Auden Schendler with the Aspen Ski Company, made an appearance both in your 2006 story and then this one from 2022. And something he said really stuck with me.

SCHENDLER: Call us hypocrites. Call us whatever you want if we're not doing that work. But don't tell me, ah, you're using carbon; therefore, you can't talk. That's what the fossil fuel industry wants us to do - is to not do anything and not change the system.

SCOTT: So I've heard this criticism so many times. And it's leveled at everyone from businesses trying to change, like the Aspen ski resort, to, you know, environmentalists - like, oh, you used a car to get to this protest, so how can you protest drilling in the Arctic? It's pretty effective as a reframing device to change the debate from systemic change to, you know, throwing it on us as a personal choice issue...

SIEGLER: Exactly.

SCOTT: ...Or just sinking us into like a quagmire where if we're not perfect, then we're guilty.

SIEGLER: Yeah. And Auden Schendler - the point he's trying to make there, I think, is, like, that we are very focused on, as consumers, bringing our reusable shopping bags or phasing out plastic water bottles when it's really so much bigger. It's really just a capitalist economy that's tied to fossil fuels. And that's really hard to move away from. And, you know, Auden Schendler is in the piece again because he's still the main player in Aspen but probably the ski industry writ large in North America. He's been rocking the boat for years now and trying to turn around one facet of a carbon-dependent economy. But, you know, even if you were to phase out all the jet traffic - and driving electric cars in Aspen - even if you totally green the ski industry, I think his point is that's just going to be a blip in the overall climate crisis.

SCOTT: It might just be one blip. But, I mean, the thing is we need to do all of the blips if we're going to have any chance of, you know, slowing down climate change and heading off the looming crisis. And to that extent, Aspen seems to have done more than most ski resorts, right?

SIEGLER: They actually have. They've built their own power plant. They undertook this long, kind of painstaking campaign to elect green environmentalist board members onto the local electric coop that then weaned itself off of coal completely. And Aspen is this paradox. It's a fascinating place to focus a story like this on because it's known around the world as being a symbol of luxury and excess and maybe everything that is wrong with the industry. But it's also really a leader in the ski industry with trying to transition this country away from fossil fuels and all the economies, like skiing, that are currently dependent on it.

SCOTT: Well, since there's never a neat ending in climate reporting, we will take ending on a powder paradox.

SIEGLER: (Laughter).

SCOTT: Thank you so much for sharing this story with us, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it.

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SCOTT: This story was produced by client Claudette Lindsay-Haberman and Eva Tesfaye. It was edited by Eric Whitney and Stephanie O'Neill. Katherine Sypher checked the facts. And Gilly Moon was the audio engineer. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Neal Carruth is our senior director of on-demand news programming. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Aaron Scott. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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