Athletes sound climate change alarm on Capitol Hill

As oil and gas lobbyists look to dismantle the EPA, many in the snowsports industry worry that climate change will end their way of life, and also their careers. A handful of athletes and environmentalists went to sound the alarm on Capitol Hill.

Star snowsports athletes and environmental experts took their climate change concerns to Capitol Hill on Sept. 14 and 15, 2011, telling politicians that if action isn’t taken immediately, they worry that their entire industry and the billions of dollars it annually pumps into the national economy are destined to disappear.

“We cannot shake this uneasy feeling that winter, as we know it, is on borrowed time,” snowboarder Jeremy Jones wrote in an op-ed for the Hill Congress Blog, an online forum for lawmakers. Jones, who founded the Protect Our Winters foundation, went to Washington, D.C. with fellow rider Gretchen Bleiler, skier Chris Davenport and Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company. 

“Even though the world's scientific community has spoken unequivocally on the realities and implications of climate change, America’s political leadership has failed us,” Jones wrote. “The Environmental Protection Agency is under attack, with too many using the ill-informed excuse that environmental regulations kill jobs. But we know that without broad policy action by the U.S. government, the joys of winter--and the jobs that go along with it--may become a thing of the past.”

In a whirlwind tour, the group hosted an event at the Capitol on the evening of the 14th, held a press conference on the 15th, delivered a petition to Congress demanding that they protect the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with the National Resources Defense Council, and held private meetings with senators before returning home. 

“Tonight was great. (It was a) good crowd and both Senators (Mark) Udall and (Michael) Bennett (both of Colorado) showed up, which was huge,” Davenport told SNEWS following the event on the evening of the 14th.

Davenport said while he is certainly working to protect a way of life that will continue to deliver “face shots and stoke” for his kids in the future, he also realizes that he has to couch his argument in terms of jobs and commerce in light of the present political atmosphere. “I don't believe for one minute the Republican argument that we need to reign in the EPA and carbon emission regulation to help stimulate jobs,” Davenport said. “Quite the opposite in fact, as clearly the science points out that good environmental policy on behalf of the Obama administration and the EPA will stimulate jobs--just not in the coal and oil sectors, where a lot of the lobbying money comes from. Climate blogger extraordinaire Joe Romm told me tonight that if you are anti-science you are anti-jobs. So that's for all the “deniers” out there.” 

According to Schendler, while representing the fun factor of the recreational industry certainly helps get them in the door to meet with lawmakers, it’s the very real jobs and income the market represents that give them the best chance to have their message taken seriously.

“We already know that congresspeople and senators are psyched to meet with us, because we're new, and different, and fun. They've told us so,” Schendler said. “We're not the steady stream of fossil fuel lobbyists who come through their doors. Many of these elected officials ski, and they remember that experience fondly. So we have their ear.” 

“Next, we actually represent a huge business sector,” he added. “Snowsports is $66 Billion if you include everything from skis to jackets to lift tickets--and we are directly threatened by climate change. Senators, congresspeople, they need cover to do the right thing, and we're offering a strong business case for solving climate change. Last, our story is newsworthy in a way that business as usual is not, and we hope we can bring attention to this issue.”

In an attempt to continue to leverage that pro-jobs message, the kind of havoc climate change can wreck on national commerce was also reiterated in the pro-EPA petition the group delivered. “Republicans have wrongly labeled EPA safeguards as “job destroying” when in fact making sure the agency has the power it needs to curtail carbon pollution can actually save jobs,” Antonia Herzog, assistant director of the NRDC Climate and Clean Air Program said in a statement announcing the petition. “We know climate change is happening and Congress needs to remember that billions of dollars and more than 600,000 jobs depend on snow to be there every year.” 

Herzog said that in Colorado alone, snow sports contribute $2 billion to the local economy, according to data from the National Conference of States Legislatures. The economic consequences of just a 1 percent annual drop in skier visits would cost $375 million and 4,500 jobs by 2017.

“Our warming climate threatens the health of our economy and our communities,” Sen. Udall said. “We literally can’t afford to roll back the protections that keep our air and water clean, and today I’m proud to join the winter athletes who have come out to add their voices to the growing chorus of those fighting to protect our quality of life.” 

Combating the influence and multi-million lobbying efforts of the coal and gas industry won’t be easy, though. But according to Schendler, who authored Getting Green Done, a book about the economic realities of sustainable business, the fight against climate change has to start somewhere.

“We've already met with two senators, and the message was “don't lose faith,”” Schendler reported at mid-day on the 15th. “And in a way, our trip is a statement of that, naive or not. We still have some faith that our elected officials will hear our voice.” 

--Peter Kray 

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