Dear Non-Ski Media: Climate Change Is Not Killing Skiing
Stop writing these garbage stories suggesting otherwise
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I’ve written a couple articles over the past year highlighting the ski industry’s resilience in the maw of a changing climate. In the first, I examined the plucky and near-snowless Poconos, where a clutch of seven ski areas regularly hammer out 100-day seasons in spite of constant refreeze events and rain. In the second, published just last week, I surveyed a number of U.S. ski areas that improbably kick-started this ski season in spite of lingering and persistent warm temperatures. The collective story is this: harsh and relentless climate change has yet to subdue skiing as a sustainable enterprise, and with steady enhancements in snowmaking technology and improved energy efficiency in every part of the operation, it’s unlikely to do so anytime soon.
The widely shared CNN Travel story published last weekend could have continued that narrative. And largely, the body of the article achieved that. But the good reporting down the page was marred by an alarmist headline and an eight-paragraph lede that cast lift-served skiing as an environmental flamethrower and skiers as profligate fools too busy enjoying themselves to realize the world is disintegrating around them.
This sort of un-nuanced pablum is fairly typical of a ski story running in non-ski media. Some editor decides they need a skiing story and since their notion of skiing is that it is a gigantic environmental scar that is the story they want. And since this is the PR battle that skiing is going to collectively have to fight, it’s worth examining the flaws here one by one. First, the article headline:
Ski resorts are melting. Here's what that means for winter vacations
This is garbage. First, it is not what this article is about. All of the story’s reporting addresses how ski resorts are reacting to a warming world and less predictable winters. A better headline would have been: The World Is Warming – Here’s How Ski Resorts Are Fighting Back. Here’s something you may not realize: reporters rarely write headlines – editors do. So some editor saw this and clickbaited the headline in a different direction than the writer, who’d probably been working on it for four weeks, had oriented the narrative. But the editor didn’t bother to push the reporting to match the headline. Instead, they just dumped a garbage pile of nonsense on top of the copy. Here’s how the story begins:
How do you turn a ski resort "green?" The easy answer is to wait until summer.
But environmentally green? That's more complicated, and the paradox facing the ski industry right now.
Winter sports fans are drawn to the mountains for the pristine wild environments, energizing views, pure air and hearty fun in the snow.
OK, a little lame, but whatever. This is a mass-market publication, and I don’t expect Tolstoy. Continuing:
But the energy needed for mountain resorts comes at a price, threatening the very premise of a pastime wedded to the natural world and its winter bounty.
Ski lifts need power to keep turning all season, resort buildings need energy, snow groomers need fuel and guests need to travel, often creating large carbon footprints from long flights.
And faced with the climate crisis and rising temperatures, resorts now need water-thirsty snow cannons to ensure enough of the white stuff for the business to operate. And that doesn't even factor in the physical and visual impact of development on the alpine environment.
Oh boy. Why ski resorts are being singled out for using energy is perplexing. I don’t think CNN Travel etched this story into a stone tablet. We are living in an industrialized world – almost everything we do requires power and other utilities. But when was the last time a media outlet called out McDonald’s for turning its lights and ovens on in the morning? This is idiotic, like starting a story about baseball by pointing out that the games require a large area of cleared ground and a stadium with a functional lighting system. Skiing, like any 21st Century business that isn’t a guy standing on a street corner with an open guitar case playing Bob Dylan covers, requires energy. This isn’t nefarious, and it isn’t news. The news is that ski areas are finding ways to run every part of their operation more efficiently, and they are getting better at it every year. Modern groomers run on 20 percent of the energy that their predecessors did just a decade ago. That’s a big deal, and it’s just one example of hundreds of ways that the modern resort is taming its energy monster.
Second, this: “guests need to travel, often creating large carbon footprints from long flights.” This paragraph-closer carries on the absurd but ubiquitous narrative that individuals can save the world if they just fly less. I hate to tell you this, but those planes are flying whether skiers are on them or not. During Covid lockdowns, airlines largely kept flying their regularly scheduled routes. Why? U.S. airport timeslots are hard to secure, and no one wanted to give them up. And besides, guilting people into flying and traveling less is unlikely to inspire mass change – raise your hand if you’d like to sail to England instead of get there in six hours on a plane. Instead, airline manufacturers need to create more efficient machines, just as ski area operators and local governments need to work in tandem to give skiers non-car alternatives to get them onto the hill. Continuing:
Planet-warming emissions are rising so quickly worldwide that experts at the World Meteorological Organization estimates that we could see another hottest year on record within the next five years, beating the previous record set in 2016.
The consequences could be devastating for the planet, and many low-level ski resorts are already under severe threat because of a lack of snow.
Name one in the United States. I’ll wait. Climate change has yet to drive a single ski area out of business. Not one. None even appear to be under “severe threat” from anything other than managerial incompetence. One could argue that the hundreds of ski areas that went out of business in the 1970s and ‘80s buckled to lean snow years, but that is an overly simplified narrative. Most simply did not invest in snowmaking, which likely would have saved them in most cases.
Now, is climate change making the ski business harder? In many cases, yes, particularly in fringe ski regions such as Ohio and the Poconos and Los Angeles. But the industry has become very, very good at fighting back, which is really what the rest of the article addresses, starting with the last paragraph before we get to the reporting:
But thankfully, resorts across the globe appear sincere about helping tackle the climate crisis, with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on myriad green initiatives, from small-scale in-resort activations to long-term systemic change.
So, there you go. If I were Arapahoe Basin or Keystone, I’d invite the editorial staff of CNN Travel out for a few runs next October. Enough of these articles drop, and the masses start to view skiing as the Styrofoam of winter sports, a fundamentally flawed enterprise that must be replaced.
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