Auden Schendler: Our industry's response to climate change is "madness"

With global warming and climate change becoming hot topics per a looming presidency change, Auden Schendler believes we must act now to save the planet. The board chair of Protect Our Winters encourages utilizing sustainable practices and pushing for political power as ways to keep the global situation from worsening.
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Auden Schendler

Photo by Jeremy Swanson

As the globe heats up and the President-elect ignores the looming danger, the board chair of Protect Our Winters urges the outdoor industry to use its political power to save the world.

The United States may be at a crossroads for climate change action. Most Americans believe it’s a real threat, but President-elect Donald Trump has said he doesn’t. Many of his cabinet appointees are global warming deniers. Auden Schendler, board chair of Protect Our Winters and leader of sustainability efforts at Aspen Ski Company, says the situation is grave. His message: We’re out of time to prevent serious damage, and we must act now to keep it from getting worse.

1. Most Americans accept that climate change is human-caused, but Trump denies that. How should the outdoor industry respond?

First, let’s understand that Trump doesn’t just have these positions, he was allowed to have them by us—citizens and the business community. We—and the outdoor industry is absolutely part of this—have been very cavalier about climate change. First, we have never fully understood the science. And second, because of that, our response has been tepid and ineffective. The science says that if we exceed total warming [increasing the average global temperature] by about 1.5°C, we’ll trigger feedback loops [chain reactions] that take us to 4, then 7, then 9°C. Who is telling us this? Not the hippies and the enviros, but rather these incredibly staid groups like PricewaterhouseCoopers, the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency, all of which have said we’re headed to 4°C on the current trajectory. At 4°C and beyond, the outdoor industry is basically gone. Well, the globe hit 1.3°C this year. And yet as an industry, our response to this catastrophic information has been to develop elaborate systems to measure the impact of our fabrics, to reduce factory waste, and to maybe change light bulbs. It’s madness.

2. How can the outdoor industry be a meaningful part of the climate solution?

We have to act like we care. And that means using our greatest power to create political will for action on climate. This simply hasn’t existed. We have to bring in the world’s top climate scientists to educate our business, constituents, and trade groups. We need to follow the examples of The North Face, Patagonia, Black Diamond, and a very few others who have used CEO voices and the power of their consumers to drive change. REI’s catalog ought to include climate activism toolkits. The CEO should write an op-ed in The New York Times. The heads of other big corporations should hold press conferences and go to D.C. and do press interviews on climate. We have treated climate as if it were one of many problems that are ancillary to our business. But it is a crisis problem that can’t be overstated.

3. What’s your role, and the role of ski resorts in general, to combat climate change?

The role used to be greening ourselves. We do that very well, as do many other ski areas, but that isn’t enough anymore. Our role in a climate-changed world is to make skiing an act of good citizenship, by using our guests, our employees, and our media power to help create a social movement around climate change. To the extent that we do stuff on the ground, it’s only valuable if it represents scale: actions like developing new, innovative, clean energy projects that can be copied, and activist campaigns against utilities, like we’ve done and like what Andy Wirth [president and CEO of Squaw Valley] is doing.

4. There’s a lot of fear about what Trump won’t do to protect the environment. Is it as bad as people think it will be?

Recently, Trump interviewed with The New York Times and seemed to back off on threats to pull out of the Paris Agreement and on his denial of human influences on climate. Was that actual change, or was it Trump simply wanting to please the people in the room? I’m inclined to be cynical, because the people in line for positions at the EPA and the Departments of Interior and Energy are some of the absolute worst possible people in the world on climate.

If there is a ray of hope, it’s this: Before he was president, Trump didn’t get the time of day from people like Bill Gates or Tim Cook. But now those guys are talking to him, saying, “Hey, climate poses very real business threats. And pulling out of Paris poses some real problems in national credibility. Do you really want China to lead the world on clean energy? Is America great again if, of 200 nations, we’re the only one denying climate science?” I think the new voices that will come into his orbit, now that he can’t exist in an echo chamber, may change him.

5. What did you want people to take away from your talk at Outdoor Retailer? 

We need to understand the science and act proportionately to the challenge. There is huge business risk in not acting (from public opinion, customer support, employee anger, and raw climate impact), and virtually no risk in acting. We have the technology and policy tools to solve this problem, and in doing so we create a safer, happier, healthier, more secure world. And we avoid the hundreds of trillions of dollars climate change will cost us. Fixing it is much cheaper than the cost of inaction.

 This article was originally published on p. 59 in the Day 1 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily Winter Market 2017.

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