Snow-Challenged Ski Industry Joins Auto Companies in Taking Action on Climate Change

Last Updated Jan 15, 2010 4:06 PM EST

By Jim Motavalli and Brian Howard NEW YORK--It's fascinating how different industries are reacting to the realities of climate change. The auto industry, as has been richly detailed here at BNET Autos, initially fought any confirmation that global warming was real. The jury was still out as far as Detroit was concerned, and leading executive Bob Lutz (still gainfully employed at GM) famously said it was "a crock of *&%$@."

But today the industry is singing a different song. Last May, when the Obama Administration announced new fuel economy/greenhouse gas rules that will require cars to get 35.5 mpg by 2016, automakers were on the podium. And when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Automobile Dealers' Association (NADA) sued California over its own greenhouse gas rules the actual automakers (in an umbrella known as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers) sat it out.

There are good business reasons for the shift. Automakers are recognizing that failure to act now will only lead to stricter regulation down the road. And its intransigence was starting to alienate increasingly eco-conscious consumers.

We do occasionally get out and take a look at other industries, and it's instructive to see that the winter recreation industry is also taking global warming seriously. They should, and self-interest is a powerful motivation. We visited some New England ski areas last year that were forced to diversity into summer resort activities because there just isn't enough snow anymore. Resorts are being forced to make snow virtually around the clock if they want to keep the slopes open. Cold weather this season has helped a bit, but the ongoing trend is toward warmer winters and gradually diminishing participation in seasonal recreational sports (which is why snowmobile sales are way down, and SUV sales aren't all that hot, either).

At a recent "Gotham Gets Green" event in New York sponsored by the outdoor industry, the challenges were brought into stark perspective. According to Protect Our Winters (the snow industry climate change group founded by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones), in 2003 the world's highest ski area was permanently closed due to loss of its glacier. Some 47 Alpine resorts didn't even open in 2007 due to climate change, with average temperatures dramatically up. "The ski industry recognizes that climate change is a major threat," said Christina Thomure, a self-proclaimed former ski bum who is now director of sustainable operations for Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyoming. Thomure pointed to the latest science, which predicts warmer winters, reduced snow pack and, in many areas, less water, which makes it harder for resorts to make snow. Aspen could rise by 14 degrees by the end of this century, and by 2075 Park City could lose a third of its snow days. The ski industry set up the Sustainable Slopes project in 2002, through the National Ski Areas Association. More recently the Keep Winter Cool campaign was launched. Many resorts have installed renewable energy projects. According to Thomure, at Jiminy Peak a wind turbine now provides a third of the resort's energy needs. At Park City, the Save Our Snow action plan is in place. Meanwhile, the Whistler resort is reducing emissions by five percent a year, aided by micro-hydro projects. The ski industry has bought 300 gigawatts of emissions credits, and has implemented anti-idling measures, built and retrofitted green buildings, provided incentives for carpooling, provided public transportation, used alternative fuels for vehicle fleets, and wrote a joint letter in support of the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, said Thomure. The ski area is embracing a triple bottom line that includes "people, profit and planet." According to Thomure, "The best part is that this is a conservative idea. Instead of being regulated by government, it is the free market that drives change."

And that's exactly what the auto industry is finally saying in its new mantra embracing the challenge of climate change. And there's a chance for them to work together. Several business coalitions have organized to create a unified lobbying force for addressing climate change and related energy efficiency. Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) includes Nike, Starbucks, Gap, Symantec, Stonyfield Farm, North Face, eBay, Ben & Jerry's, Levi Strauss, Sun Microsystems and Timberland.

Last March, the group released an agenda that included reducing greenhouse emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It also calls for an economy-wide cap-and-trade system that auctions 100 percent of its carbon credits, stimulating green job growth, and limiting construction of new coal plants to those that can capture and store carbon dioxide.

BICEP is flexing, and it may soon add the auto industry into its column.