Report depicts grim future for ski industry
VAIL – It’s January, 2085, and Vail and Beaver Creek are just getting ready for the opening of the three-month ski season. Skiers and snowboarders are pretty much restricted to the upper parts of the mountain, where a 40-inch base – the best in years – awaits.Below, the million-dollar homes built on the promise of a ski town that would live forever sit empty, not having been used in decades. Most of the money has moved downvalley, where a thriving golf economy is active almost year-round.That’s the grim, globally warmed future postulated in the “State of the Rockies Report Card,” published last week by Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Now in its third year, the student-led initiative takes on issues of interest to the West, and for 2006, climate change was one focus. In the report, written by recent graduates Caitlin O’Brady, Bryan Hurlbutt and senior Gregory Zimmerman, two different climate models and information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were used to predict what the climate in the Central Rockies will be like in the future – and what the effects will be.It’s not pretty. The models postulate a decrease in the average April 1 snowpack of 57 percent in Eagle County. That’s based on a comparison between 1976 (representing the average for the years 1961 to 1990) and 2085 (average for 2070 to 2090). Areas further south or at lower elevations suffer even more, and temperatures are higher all around.For O’Brady, the facts pointing to climate change are apparent.”Whether or not we want to fight about if it’s human or natural, the climate is changing,” she said. “Some people are upset, but not printing an article on climate change doesn’t make it go away.”Most of the reaction to the report has been positive, O’Brady said.”They say it’s fantastic that we’re getting this conversation started, because it’s an important issue,” she said.
Auden Schendler, the environmental manager for Aspen Ski Corporation, said the report represents the first time anyone’s taken a good look at these climate models and applied them to the ski industry. He spoke at the State of the Rockies conference and said he’s confident in the reliability of the projections.”The way you test is run them backwards,” Schendler said. “What did the weather look like in 1975, and they correspond strikingly.”As O’Brady said, the models and the report is a means to start talking about the potential problem.”It’s gotten a lot of attention, and that was our first goal,” she said. “Lots of things can happen – the earth is very complex – but we wanted to present this as an option, that’s it’s a definite possibility.”For Schendler, the notion that the reality of global warming and climate change is even debatable is off the table.”Millions of dollars are spent on groups funded by companies like Exxon to spread disinformation on climate,” he said. “The idea is to sow doubt, and when you do that, people aren’t sure if it’s true or not.”The media often exacerbate the problem by presenting “the other side” as if it’s a legitimate opposition, he said. “The scientific consensus is overwhelming, but they dig up this one guy in Atlanta or another from M.I.T., and that’s not good journalism,” he said.The reality, he said, is that most people are inclined to accept the fact of global warming, but they think we have more time to correct it and that small reductions in emissions will make a big difference.That’s just not true, Schendler said.”We need to cut emissions 50 to 90 percent by 2100,” he said, adding that reductions need to happen soon to begin reversing the warming effects.
No industry or community wants to hear that its main source of income is possibly doomed. Don Cohen, executive director of the newly forming Economic Council of Eagle County, mentions communities like Butte, Mont. or Bisbee, Ariz. – places where mine closings change the economic landscape.”But it’s hard when the risks seem so far, far away,” Cohen said of the potential for climate change. “But I do think the community would somehow reinvent itself, and we might see a shift to a different kind of tourism. I’m sure we could find room for a couple more golf courses.”More to the point today, Cohen said, is the question of economic diversity for the future.”What are we doing today to ensure that kind of viability for tomorrow?” he said. “The answer is ‘very little.’ We’re not building a viable model for sustainability absent skiing.”But, he added, it’s not necessarily a failing of the community but something that’s mirrored in many other places. “They’re still building on the San Andreas Fault,” he said. “After Hurricane Katrina, they’re still building on coastal areas.”Distant or not, information about climate change is apparently starting to make an impression on the ski industry.”I think the general response is that the industry has accepted this,” Schendler said. Less certain is what should be done on an industry-wide basis, he said. While plenty of ski areas are taking small steps – like using biodiesel, wind power or installing more efficient light bulbs – Schendler said it’s not nearly enough.
“Even if we eliminated all the emissions in the ski industry, we’d still have this warming,” he said.At Colorado Ski Country USA, spokeswoman Molly Cuffe said the trade group advocates a three-prong approach: reduce, educate and advocate. It’s this last piece that Schendler said is the most important.”We have to use the industry as a lobbying tool,” he said, adding that other industries – from rafting, fishing and hunting to agriculture – can get involved. “We can be very powerful when the Western recreation industry goes to Washington and says ‘we’re concerned about this.’ That’s huge.”Cuffe said Ski Country supports legislation like the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, but that it looks to the National Ski Areas Association for pushing other policies.”Global warming is something that concerns us absolutely,” she said. “But we’re coming off a great season, so the challenge is to balance an eye on the future but running the business for today.”In the State of the Rockies report, the models do account for a scenario of reduced emissions versus the “business as usual” outcome. But the report also notes that greenhouse gases have a “residence time” in the atmosphere of many decades or centuries.In other words, it may already be too late. That’s something Schendler said is a failing from the top.”Bush will go down in history as having missed the greatest opportunity of his generation,” Schendler said. “He thought it was Iraq, but it was climate.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14625, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado