InterviewsNewsThe End of Winter? An Interview with Bill McKibben

Avatar Audrey ManganDecember 19, 201125
Defying nature, Rumford 2011. Photo: Kris Dobie.

Snow-wise, the 2011-2012 season hasn’t gotten off to the best start. Just four weeks into the World Cup, low snow has caused nearly every European host to scramble to put together a man-made course, shorten (at least initially) its distance races, or give up and move to another venue entirely.

Domestically, competitors for the approaching U.S. Nationals are looking at a week of racing on a man-made loop in Rumford, ME for the second year in a row. Even in the Rockies, where powder is supposed to be a sure thing from November through April, spotty trail coverage is putting the location of upcoming NRL races up in the air.

Nature’s refusal to give skiers snow when they want it is hardly a new struggle, but its prevalence and persistence to this point in the season is a bit more worrying than usual. An ever-warming December begs the question: has climate change finally put us well on our way to the end of winter as we know it?

To help explain whether this fear is well-founded or not, we enlisted the help of Bill McKibben: environmentalist, journalist, educator and — luckily for us — lifelong nordic skier.

To say that McKibben is one of the most influential environmentalists on the planet is an understatement; with the publication of his widely-read The End of Nature in 1989, the fist book about climate change written for general audiences, he became a leader in the fight to mitigate global warming. Since then, he’s written over a dozen more books, including Long Distance, which chronicles his year-long project to train for nordic skiing at an elite level and see where it got him.

Though he’s based out of Vermont, where he is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, McKibben has been on the road a lot this year with his non-profit, 350.org, leading campaigns against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He took some time out of saving the planet to answer our questions about climate change, skiing, and the future of the winter we depend on.

FasterSkier: A handful of World Cups and domestic races have been affected by low snow cover this year. I know it’s important to be wary of pinning it all on global warming, but can we expect this to become more of a trend in the near future? Will the ski season (on natural snow) only get shorter and shorter from here on out?

Bill McKibben: Year to year variability is still quite real, but the general trend for the century has long been forecast: much shorter winters. Which of course is the saddest news possible for cross country skiers—in fact, a decade ago one of the first regional climate reports the EPA prepared for the northeast said cross country skiing would be functionally extinct by the middle to late century (along with snowmobiling).

The ski racers have been noticing it for years—even when I wrote Long Distance, which was a decade ago, they were complaining about races getting postponed, or having to move higher up the mountains to train. I fear cross country skiing is the canary in the coal mine of sports when it comes to global warming.

FS: Do scientists know yet what regions of the world will be affected by climate change in what ways? I know there are a myriad of factors that determine this, and some parts of the world may actually get colder while others get warmer, get more precipitation while others get less, but can we predict, say, what will happen in Scandinavia (and on what timeline)?  

BM: Not in quite that detail. In general, dry places will get dryer and wet places wetter. When it’s below 32 degrees F, that wetness will translate into snow. But it will be below 32 less of the time. There are some short-term wildcards: maybe open water in the winter Arctic Ocean is pushing moisture and cold south? But the general trend, sadly, is unmistakable.

FS: The ski world is already dealing with the unreliability of snow: ski tunnels, more snow making, trucking snow into cities, stockpiling, etc.  Do you think any of these strategies are appropriate?

Desperate, and probably appropriate. The hard part will come when they go from being occasional supplements to the main show. (Or worse yet, those plastic snow fields that show up in YouTube videos once a year or so. Or…catskis.)

Better news is the way many nordic skiers, citizen and world class both, are joining in the climate fight. Andrew Gardner, the Middlebury coach, has done a great job corralling fantastic skiers from around the world, along with a roster of other fine athletes, to join in our efforts, including Anders Aukland, Bill Demong and Sara Renner.

FS: Though nordic skiers are proud of the fact that they enjoy snow without the use of chairlifts, there is no denying that even our outdoor lifestyle has an environmental impact. We drive long distances to ski trails, jet off to Europe to do the Norwegian Birkie, buy new skis because they might just help us finally beat that one rival—and it adds up. We contribute to the destruction of the environment upon which our sport depends. How can we reconcile this? How do you, as an avid skier?

BM: It’s always seemed to me that everyone is allowed to be passionate about something, as long as it really is a passion. I have six or seven pairs of skis, and in the end I don’t feel all that guilty about it—skiing and training takes up so much of my spare time that I don’t have much left for other, more random consumption. Just don’t decide that you should buy nine kinds of scuba gear too.

That said, the endless travel is a real problem, and one that worries me: I’m lucky in that I can ski out my door a few kilometers through the woods, and reach the Breadloaf tracks, which now include a brand new homologated race trail where you could hold a World Cup if you wanted to—it’s the real monster of the east. Rikert has 50 k more, Blueberry Hill is 10 k down the snowmobile trail, the Catamount (backcountry) trail crosses about a half mile from my house—I really don’t need to leave all winter long.

FS: Between running 350.org, teaching at Middlebury, organizing protests (and going to jail for it!) and speaking all over the place about climate change, how much time do you actually have to ski?

I am on the go almost all year long organizing; the fight against global warming is all-consuming, because we have so little time left to deal with it—I had an email from my wife a few weeks ago noting that I’d spent more nights in jail than at home this fall (not the note you really want to get from your wife).

But I do my damnedest to carve out the winter months (when travel out of New England is a dicey proposition anyway) to stay home and write…and ski. Which I do every day I can—it’s kind of the local joke that I’ll ski on anything even vaguely white. Today was one of those days—two inches of snow on mushy, unfrozen ground, your poles picking up a bolus of icy mud with every plant. But it was great good fun anyway.

I confess, I just love the motion of cross country skiing so much (classic especially, though on the right day I’m a happy skater). There’s no other outdoor pursuit that comes close. A good year is 120 days of skiing; paradise would be 150.

FS: How did you first get into nordic skiing?

BM: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, in a snowier time, and would just do it in the woods—always loved the feeling. I never even knew there was racing until much later. But when I was nearing 40, I knew I needed a year off from failing to save the planet, so I took a year and devoted it to serious training, at pretty much a World Cup level. I didn’t get fast, but I did have a heck of a good time, and made a lot of friends I still have—It’s always fun to get up to Craftsbury or over to Lake Placid for a race and see them.

And of course it’s been a great privilege to be a small part of the nordic scene at Middlebury College, where I’m faculty adviser to the team. It’s a remarkable program with a great history (and a great roster for this season!). We’re looking forward to seeing everyone for NCAA’s in 2013. It’s fun to get to watch kids I knew back when become international racers—Tim Burke, Garrott Kuzzy, Simi Hamilton, Tim Reynolds.

FS: How has your love of the outdoors affected the path you’ve taken as an environmentalist?

BM: Yep. My first book, The End of Nature, was also the first book about climate change for a general audience. It was half reporting, and half kind of philosophical meditation, mostly about how sad to me it felt to be losing the essential wildness of the world (especially my beloved Adirondacks, where I was then living very deep in the woods).

Since then I’ve traveled and learned more about the world, and figured out that there are other, maybe better, reasons to fight climate change: it’s already killing hundreds of thousands annually, and it represents the greatest threat to human civilization we’ve ever faced. But for me, that sadness about the world I love remains a big part of my work.

FS: What is the single best step a skier (or anyone) can take to reduce their impact on the environment?

BM: Don’t worry overmuch about reducing your impact on the environment—you know the things to do, and you’ll do those of them that you can. Worry instead about increasing your impact on the politics of climate. I fear we’re going to need more people spending the night in jail, more people figuring out how to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, more people out marching. 2011 actually showed that people may be ready to do some serious political work: I was thrilled not just with the turnout for our pipeline battle, but also the Occupy stuff. Join in—help us out at 350.org anyway!

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Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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