A Climate Change Call To Arms

Venture capitalist Erik Blachford on what the ski industry should do

Erik Blachford in Nepal. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERIK BLACHFORD

This past April, 1,200 ski resort executives and representatives from lodges, hotels, and ski clubs from around the world converged in Snowmass Village, Colorado, for the annual Mountain Travel Symposium. The summit’s goal is to advance the larger mountain travel industry, with talks and panels discussing every aspect of the travel business, from marketing to sales strategies and operations. Among the guests invited to bring some outside perspective to the summit was Erik Blachford, a venture capitalist who learned to ski on the slopes of Quebec’s Mount Avila and has since become CEO of Expedia, Butterfield & Robinson travel, and TerraPass, a carbon offset company, while investing in a milieu of tech and travel companies and serving on the boards of companies as well as nonprofits like ecoAmerica.

Erik delivered a talk on the future applications for social media and online travel sales models for ski areas, and during the Q&A, was asked what he thought about the “800-pound gorilla in the room.” Before the questioner had a chance to clarify, Blachford quickly jumped in. “Oh, you mean climate change!” Then he jumped into a small sermon on why ski resorts’ biggest onus is to get out in front of their customers and ‘connect the dots’ on how climate change will affect their customers’ signature passion should no legislative action take place. Blachford’s blunt message shucked the industry’s default approach to climate change, which has been to invest in efficiency and renewable energy measures, while staying largely silent on the looming impacts of a warming planet. We called Erik to get an outsider’s perspective on what the ski industry could do for the larger effort to mitigate global warming.

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The ski industry has a product that inspires passion like almost nothing else. When I think of other industries, the ski industry inspires passion the way rock and roll inspires passion, right? It becomes a key part of how people think about themselves—they consider themselves skiers. Whereas with most tech companies that I invest in, people don’t assume a primary identity as a user of a given online travel site or something.

From a business perspective—listen, it’s a snow farming business, and if it doesn’t snow, it’s very hard to see how you make it work. And that’s the big, obvious connection to climate change. It’s a little different from mountain biking or something. The trail will still be there.

I’ll be honest: I had been trying to find a way to work it [climate change] in somehow with such an influential group. Somebody said, ‘Well, what about the 800-pound gorilla?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you mean climate change!’ They of course didn’t mean climate change, but that was okay (chuckling).

The biggest part of skiing’s carbon footprint for most people is probably transportation to and from the mountain. Driving isn’t such a big deal, it’s more the flying. For upper-income Americans, it’s by far the biggest part of their carbon footprint across the board…but when what your industry is doing is immersing people in nature and reminding them of why they love nature in the first place, I think that’s doing more good than harm by helping people’s awareness and enticing them to take action to protect the environment.

Either there’s going to be a legislative solution…or there’s going to be some kind of technical solution. And whether that’s some flavor of mechanical carbon scrubbing or creative land use or whatever it might be, it’ll be something that’s going to stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But what you’re probably not going to do is have this be solved by individual action, because there are forces against that, like basic human self-interest, that are too strong.

When you bring up climate change [in the ski industry], people tend to feel like somehow you’re accusing them of something. I’m picking my words here a little bit, but there seems to be this defensive crouch. The ski resort operators feel like they are being asked to somehow solve the problem by running perfectly renewable ski resorts. And the point I was trying to make at the symposium is that driving awareness among skiers and riders is a much more highly leveraged thing that the operators can do.

The ski areas should connect the dots between the sport that they love so much and climate change, which almost by definition in these high-altitude areas, is going to shorten the season. I love when ski resorts put in wind turbines and micro-hydro and get to net-zero energy, but listen…what they can really do—what they can really do—is stop the silence on the issue.

Aside from the occasional resort poster about their commitment to sustainability, you hardly ever see any real outreach to connect the dots and say, “Listen, you may not care about climate change for any other reason, but you care about it for this reason: you want to be able to ski.”

It’s really hard to get people to understand their connection to climate change. People connect immediately with how their lifestyle is unsustainable, flying a lot or driving a car that gets low mileage, but that just makes them feel bad and want to avoid the whole topic. But give them a reason for taking some kind of political action to mitigate climate change…and skiing’s about as good of a cause [as you could hope for].

As for climate change skeptics, I’m not in the game of trying to convince everyone in the world that climate change is real—we just don’t have time to do that. It makes a lot more sense to mobilize the people that already know it’s real.

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  • Marshall Tucker

    This week I watched a web series video of a pro skier (skier A) supposedly paying tribute to a legendary pro skier (skier B) who is no longer alive. Here’s how:

    Skier A had been given Skier B’s snowmobile, and no longer needed it. He tells the audience he couldn’t ever sell the sled, implying that wouldn’t do justice to Skier B’s legacy. Skier B had been widely celebrated for inspiring the masses to get after it in the mountains, having had the original vision for what ski technology has become. It was not made clear why the sled couldn’t be handed down to another deserving protege, salvaged for parts, or raffled off for a worthy cause (even if it was worn out, it was the sport’s equivalent of, say, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar).

    Skier A towed the late Skier B’s snowmobile hundreds of miles to Canada, hired a heli to longline the sled to a slope above a cliff, then rode the sled off the cliff to provide forward momentum for his freefall and parachute descent. The video’s conclusion showed Skier A picking up the fragments of what used to be the snowmobile, telling the camera that they’re very ‘green’ at his web series enterprise, and then playing with toddlers for emotional gravitas. The Internet chatter seemed to point to this being a super rad memorial.

    Skier B had lost his life some years back in a ski-BASE jumping accident.

    I don’t want to pass judgment for other peoples’ personal choices, or tarnish memories of lost loved ones. But since we’re talking about the 800 pound gorilla, I don’t see the ski industry connecting the dots anytime soon.

    Why would I take the time to write a long-winded comment that few will likely read? Because we can do better. As long as celebrated skiers use their fame only for self promotion, and sponsors’ exposure, there will be a leadership vacuum, and no public mouthpiece for how we all fit into the climate change problem -and potential solutions.

    Skier B had been an outspoken leader in his time, pushing radical ideas in ski design, which were initially ridiculed. He had been inspired by water ski and snowboard design elements. Speaking of snowboarding, Jeremy Jones and his Protect Our Winters have taken the only snowsport celebrity-branded leadership position in the climate discussion. And here we are, fawning over self-indulgent, industry-sponsored stunts veiled as tribute to the dearly departed. We, the dazzled skiers who nod our heads with the assurance that the person on the screen is ‘green’.

  • Jamie Schectman

    I commend Mr Blachford for speaking the truth and calling out the ski resort executives.

    The ski industry is at crossroads and needs some fresh sets of eyes and a new vision to get back on track.

    I believe the ski industry should be at the forefront of combating climate change. If not, the sport will become extinct.

    • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.delbeke Wayne Delbeke

      Sorry. Have been studying climate related to my work in engineering and farming for 50 years and all I see is weather and natural cycles – some exacerbated by poor farming practices and urbanization – global warming is real (as is cooling) and man has an impact – but the boogey man (CO2) is nothing but an obvious taxable entity. Look at where we are in the current long term cycles – then make sure you have winter tires, chains and survival gear in you car when you travel. The Nenana River ice break up this year is going to be the latest or second latest on record. But that too is weather not climate. The ski industry, like the golf industry will not go extinct from weather but from lack of participants. When I was skiing two weeks ago, there was lots of snow, but you could have peppered the area with howitzer shells and not hit anyone as they are doing other things in spite of tickets being nearly half price. Course most of the people there had passes. It isn’t weather or climate that is the problem. It is the cost and competition with other activities that is the issue for the ski industry. I have skied for 60 years plus and the issue is the lack of young boarders and skiers committed to the sport that is the real issue.

      • Marshall Tucker

        Wayne, an engineer such as yourself knows the difference between anecdotal evidence and empirical evidence. You have just supported your assertion with anecdotal evidence. Just thought I’d point that out.

      • tk

        just because some river is having its second latest ice break on record means nothing. glaciers all across the world are receding and the winter snowpack in the rockies has dropped by 20% in the past 30 years (quoting USGS right here). CO2 is not just a taxable entity. it has an adverse effect on climate. we are now 400ppm. get your facts straight. also there are plenty of young guns out there. look at the JFT or kids like Kelly Sildaru and Birk Irving.

  • ptor

    CO2 is not the culprit. Winter is not going away. The only responsibility of skiers and everyone else is to help get rid of the world’s military….the biggest polluters and repressors of technology…period. It’s bloody 2013 already, we should be done with that crap.

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