Protect Our Winters (POW) Founder Jeremy Jones, 2006 Olympic Silver Medalist Gretchen Bleiler, World Champion Freeskier Chris Davenport, and Auden Schendler, vice president, sustainability, Aspen Skiing Company visited Washington DC to share their message about climate change’s impact on the winter sports community and its accompanying $66 billion industry. The group, whose message is primarily couched in economic impacts, brought a letter signed by over 500 pro athletes, businesses, and influentials, and shared it with key members of the House and Senate.
We caught up with the team following their return to learn more about …
Why do you feel it’s important to take your message directly to Congress and what sort of impact do you feel POW’s efforts are having there?
Auden: Washington gets a stream of fossil fuel lobbyists every day. But policy makers don’t see snowsports athletes ever, let alone athletes concerned about their $66B industry. Their visit is therefore memorable, unique, and of much higher impact than the same old same old. At the same time, their interest is conservative, it’s a business interest.
Gretchen: We went to DC, as representatives of the snow sports community, to offer a unique perspective on our environment and climate change that isn’t seen often. As professional snowboarders and skiers, we shared our first-hand experiences with climate change that we’re seeing around the globe and why we think it’s imperative to support legislation that regulates carbon emissions. Visits from the high power and high dollar coal and oil industry are the norm and political pressures are high in DC. With that, sometimes even though a decision maker believes climate change is real, and everyone we met with that day in DC did agree it is, the right decision is sacrificed and as a nation we are that much further from helping solve one of the biggest issues facing mankind. But every cloud has a silver lining and ours was meeting the Senators and Representatives that have been long time champions for climate legislation. Senators Mark and Tom Udall and Bennet and Representatives Jared Polis and Ed Markey all offered hope and advised us to keep chipping away like we are, and not to lose hope. The more we are there sharing our stories, our statistics, and giving them reasons to do the right thing, the more likely they will be to do it!
Jeremy: Climate change is under attack in Congress right now. They are trying to reverse laws that have been in place for a long time. Since we represent a huge community that is often overlooked in the climate debate in DC, it’s a critical opportunity to meet with Congress and let them know that people still care about the environment and that the fragile economies in our mountain regions depend on consistent winters. Not acting on climate change will not only be an environmental disaster, but an economic one too.
Chris: The winter sports industry needs a strong collective voice. Our industry represents millions of jobs and billions of dollars, yet is only a blip on the radar of Capitol Hill. So we wanted to take our message to the heart of our government, and into the offices of our Senators and Congressmen. I personally feel like our trip was effective on several levels. First, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the elected officials and staffers we spoke to were excited to hear from us and agreed with our positions for the most part. Secondly, having professional athletes bring first hand examples of changes they have witnessed out in the mountains seemed to strike a chord with people – adding tangibility to an often intangible issue. And finally, I think all the media we generated from the trip, such as this interview, only serves to heighten people’s awareness of the issues and should be seen as a “call to action” for the industry.
What were the highlights of the trip?
Auden: For me the highlight was watching Gretchen, Chris, and Jeremy engage with elected officials and their staff. They were articulate, forceful, and convincing. And they got better as the day went on. I think we have something here.
Jeremy: Meeting with the elected officials like Senators Tom and Mark Udall and Bennet, and Reps. Polis and Markey, who have been champions on the environmental front, and hearing from them that they still have hope that Congress can do the right thing for the environment.
Chris: The highlights were all of the face time and hand shakes with Senators and Congressmen. While we didn’t get to sit down with as many elected officials as we may have hoped, I was thrilled by the opportunity to represent our great industry in front of these esteemed individuals. Having Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) show up at our panel discussion with prepared comments and positive thoughts on the issues was also huge for us.
You guys met with a wide array of Senators and Congressmen on Thursday. How difficult was it to get an audience with them?
Auden: In some cases, as with our Colorado delegation, it was a piece of cake. But they’re on our side. We really wanted to meet with, say, the Maine senators, who are key swing votes on climate, and we couldn’t get in the room with them.
Jeremy: It’s tougher than you’d think. It depends entirely on whether they want to hear what we have to say, which is unfortunate. We had the opportunity to meet with some climate champions who greeted us with open arms because they saw us as representatives of a huge segment of like-minded people who could help them. It was valuable to hear their perspectives on the climate debate in DC. It was tough getting meetings with other Senators who outright oppose climate change, so we focused our time on those who we felt had shown signs of wavering on the issue, and we had good discussions with them all.
Most of the language you’re using around the impact of global warming on snow sports revolves around economics. How important is couching your message in these terms versus other more traditional means of qualitative arguments?
Auden: It’s crucial politically, but it’s also factual: $66B worth of business people depend on stable climate. Actually, if you go beyond snowsports into biking, hiking, fishing, farming, it’s about ten times that number.
Gretchen: Temperatures and sea levels rising, more extreme weather, species dying off, snow, what’s snow? One would think these few examples of the impacts of global warming would be reason enough for our government to take action. Yet we are still seeing hesitation from our leaders time after time when it’s time to commit. Often times the big picture is hard to wrap your head around and can seem overwhelming. But if you can partner that big picture with another current, relatable and more tangible cause then people are more likely to respond.
Because of where we are as a nation, focusing our message on jobs really hits home. Especially since there is an argument out there right now that regulating our carbon emissions is killing jobs. What we’re saying is quite the opposite, and point out that actually not addressing global warming will result in a far wider loss of jobs as shorter winters and reduced snow pack effect every single mountain community across the nation. $66 billion is generated through the snow sports industry, supporting 600,000 jobs, and all of that is at risk right now.
Jeremy: There is a sector of business – specifically the oil and coal companies that benefit from keeping our world running how it runs right now. Embracing green technologies and being a worldwide leader in that sector will result in more jobs. And it’s about saving current jobs. Ask anyone that lives in, or around a resort town and sees how an off winter affects the whole town economically. For example, when I was young, Thanksgiving always represented the start of winter and the start of the winter tourist season. Now, it’s pretty rare to have a good snow by Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday is now hit or miss. Consider the millions of dollars already lost during that time.
Chris: With the emphasis being put on the economy and job creation by both the Obama administration and the House and Senate, we felt like it was important to speak about climate in those terms. We represent business and are business people ourselves. Our jobs, and the jobs of hundreds of thousands of others, depend on long winters. To me, a ski resort shutting down is no different than a coal mine or auto plant shutting down… it effects entire communities. We need the Clean Air Act to stay intact, and the EPA to be able to do what it was mandated to do.
Did you guys meet with many skeptics? What’s your tactic for dealing with people that don’t believe global warming is real?
Auden: You know, even Lisa Murkowski from Alaska understands the science and the human cause of warming. But our approach has always been: “Look, this is what we’re seeing. This is our experience.”
Jeremy: If nine doctors told you that had cancer and one said that you might not, who would you listen to? Unfortunately, there are quite a few that would say “the one.” It’s just crazy the gamble the skeptics are taking on climate change. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to focus on changing the flat out deniers. So we focus on those who are on the fence – the people who have taken pro environment votes in the past but have recently voted against the environment. Because if we change the minds of a few of the middle of the road people we can make a difference.
Chris: The skeptics on Capitol Hill tend to be the right-leaning Republicans and we did not get face time with any of them. The moderate Republicans we spoke with often agreed with our position but I got the feeling that their hands were tied and they were often times unable to vote their conscience due to the ridiculous and ineffective partisan politics in Washington.
With everything going on in Washington these days, do you think issues such as global warming are being pushed to the back burner?
Auden: No-in fact the house has a new draft bill right now. And it’s not going away because we see it happening, but also because the solutions to climate are creating a lot of jobs, and will continue to .
Jeremy: No, it may seem that way to the general public, but we heard a number of times that we shouldn’t lose faith and now more than ever, we need to stay aggressive. “Jobs” is the key issue in DC right now, and a lot of people realize that climate change and jobs are inter-connected.
Chris: Well you might expect that to be the case, but actually many environmental groups, including POW, are turning up the heat at this very moment. I think that while many legislators wish the issue would just disappear, it’s actually gaining momentum. We need to keep the pressure on!
What’s the next major project for POW?
Auden: We need to get major snowsports trade groups like NSAA and CSCUSA to establish climate lobbying as a priority. Shouldn’t they want to protect winter?
Jeremy: We’re not giving up on DC. We already have plans to continue to put added pressure on some key Senators with a focused and aggressive effort. And now that school is back, we’re also going to continue our educational program, Hot Planet/Cool Athletes – taking pro athletes into schools to make sure that our young students are the next generation of climate champions. Lots to do.
What can snowsports retailers and industry members do to help support POW’s cause?
Auden: There are literally billions of dollars of corporate money in Washington paying lobbyists to oppose climate legislation. POW has a budget of a couple of hundred grand. We need some money, even a little, to effectively counter the status quo money. We use those dollars effectively and efficiently, and we are grateful for our many sponsors and individual supporters.
Jeremy: Get informed on the issues, vote accordingly and become a member of POW. The bigger POW is the more power we will have in making changes on Capitol Hill.
Chris: We would ask the entire winter community, including retailers, athletes, resorts, manufacturers and consumers to sign on with POW and the endorse future efforts targeted to Congress. The more people and companies we have behind these calls to action, the better.