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!
buy albuterol inhaler,buy combigan online,buy chantix,buy voltaren gel online
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.
December 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm
While McKibbens efforts are appreciated, I always wonder how effective they are. Has 350.org resulted in anything other than to continue to “raise awareness” for people who are already pretty aware (isn’t it getting a bit late in the game to be satisfied with just that) and provide a fun day out for participants?
And in spite of all the environmental heavy-hitters rallying around the Keystone pipeline thing, I still haven’t heard a rational explanation for why it matters that much. (neutral parties like “The Economist,” say US already imports a lot of oil from Tar Sands, and the pipeline would just add a marginal amount. Further, if pipeline is stopped, Canada will just sell the oil elsewhere.)
In other words, how can the environmental movement (and all of us) move beyond just symbolic gestures?
December 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm
As Mckibben says, to preserve our sport in some useable form, we need to make ourselves heard to effect public policy. As to why tar sands are such a big deal, the best information ( from Brandt at Stanford) estimates that tar sands are 23% more environmentally damaging than conventional oil. This a big move in the wrong direction.
December 19, 2011 at 5:31 pm
It breaks my heart that such great people put such immeasurable efforts into myths such as global warming. Every skier knows that ice ages come and go?
350.org is to climate as livestrong.com is to cancer. Awereness, hurray, now we’re saved!
While the worth around us is collapsing, due to banks stealing rather than keeping, banksters taking places of statesmen and vise versa… What’s the basis to even begin to be believe the story 350.org was based on?
I agree we need to focus on alternative energies. I spend a great amount of my time researching experiment technologies towards a greener future. The CO2 propaganda was never invented to reduce oil consumtion though. See the oil lords waving their green flags? That’s not because they’ve grown hearts for morther nature. Go kid yourself. Greenpeace? Not the place it used to be.
So much energy and love in the hearts of the people who do the hard work for these initiatives, the hardest working, free slaves that ever were.
One year you get snow, the other year you get global warming. Right? I skied 10 days on home snow last year. That’s a huge record where I live. Climate changes. Life happens. Ice ages will come, and go. We are lucky to live long enough to even figure out whether the last ice age is closer, or the next one.
We are constantly under fire from the sun, which has cycles it goes through.
We are sitting on a lava drop with cold crust, 12000km across. That’s a lot of lava. Right in the sun continiously, spinning and wobbling.
To think we could make an impact on climate in such a way, by means of the most common inert gas of them all…in it were told to us in a movie 40 years ago, they’d have laughed. yet we, we can be told anything, as we’ll believe it, as long as we’re being given FEAR as a side dish.
Invest a bit less in killing civilians in far-away countries, and a bit more actually developing patented ways to achieve energy reduction, or generation.
Everyone playing along with the CO2 propaganda game, is part of a very dirty program to keep us stupid and poor.
While you worry over CO2, the world as you know it is being stolen from you. And it’s not the climate.
December 19, 2011 at 5:37 pm
Many thanks to Audrey for a fine piece. As to why Keystone is so important, it’s because it connects to the tarsands of Canada. Those turn out to be the second-largest pool of carbon on earth, after the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. It was burning Saudi Arabia, more than any other thing, that has raised the temperature of the earth a degree. If we find the next Saudi Arabia and do the same thing, we’re…well, let Jim Hansen of NASA explain. If you tap the tarsands heavily, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.”
And to see Cloxxki back in action! Always good to have a little climate denial to spice up the holidays. Just don’t confuse it with science. The same kind of smart guys who figured out about, say, the chemical structure of fluorine so your skis can go real fast have figured out about the chemical structure of carbon. Its molecular structure traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. It’s not even all that complicated. (If you understand the charts at Statistical Skier, you can definitely definitely grasp climate science!)
December 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm
@Iceman: I get that tar sands are bad; I don’t see how stopping one way they’re transported (i.e., pipeline) effects their production or consumption.
Another way to put my issue with McKibben is I wish he and others would focus on realistic solutions rather than things that feel self-gratifying. Effecting public policy requires building broad consensus, and 350.org works against consensus by preaching to the converted and oversimplifying the problem. (E.g., giving a (completely impossible) target of 350 ppm (or whatever it stands for), implies that climate science is so precise that if we get to that exact number, we’ll be ok (and everyone who looks at the source of greenhouse emissions in detail, things the target is laughable given the current structure of our economy). Distorting things in that way makes the Rick Perry’s of the world actually sound like the reasonable ones.
Better would be to acknowledge there’s a lot of uncertainty, but as an insurance policy against an x% chance of severe disruption to our way of life, it’s in everyone’s interest to take action. So, let’s spend $Y billion a year on a long-term solution (fusion or hydrogen or something), and in the short-term, given the trade-off’s, it’s in all our interests to spend $Z billion on immediate mitigation efforts.
December 19, 2011 at 5:51 pm
Mr. Mckibben, you are most welcome to come to the European Union, where denial is part of daily life for most politicians (Czech president Vaclav Klaus being one of the most notorious ones). Not sure why it’s so hard for them to grasp global warming, but it somehow is (maybe it’s the gradual growth of conservatism in the old continent). Unfortunately, there are more people that are against this movement than there are for it. I am sure Cloxxki will notice global warming when half of Holland is under water. People can laugh at Mr. Mckibben and Mr. Gore now, but they’ll be crying in the future. Most have no idea how big this problem is, and that’s a shame. While this is a winter spots site, and we do have to worry about the future of our sport, we also have to look towards the well being of the planet. That’s the ultimate goal of Global Warming activists. It should be the goal for the rest of us as well.
December 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm
Not to react to everything on the thread–I’ve pretty much had my say, thanks to Audrey–but the idea promulgated by NE_Skier that 350.org doesn’t focus on solutions, and indulges in ‘self-gratifying’ work, are i think wrong. To wit–this fall, with the help of many people at this site, we had a huge day of global action centered around bicycles: as a solution to many of our transportation issues, and as a tool (one of the few) used by both rich and poor around the world. We organize in every country but North Korea, and we organize around both saying yes to good energy solutions, and no to devastatingly bad ones (like Keystone). That said, I’m very glad that NE_Skier et al are taking other approaches and working hard at them–this is a large enough problem that there’s room for everyone to play a part.
December 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm
To the extent might first post contributed to a political discussion which is really tangential to what the article was about, sorry, and just want to say…great article! I particularly like Bill’s description of allowing everyone a true passion (which feels like a healthy, non-absolutist acknowledgement that any human activity is going to have an environmental impact.) And love of the classical ski motion is a great thing to hear someone describe…
December 19, 2011 at 8:09 pm
I’m pretty dumb, and no cool letters after my name, but seems to me, in long run, our world population growth rate is the ultimate problem to be addressed for environment/resources /warming, no? Fuel source choices only seems it would slow carbon output, but, like piss, people will always go for easiest route downhill, its in our nature 🙂
December 19, 2011 at 8:48 pm
I gotta say – it seems quite ironic that this article mentions Middlebury College’s xc skiers’ influence in the fight to save the planet, and at the same time notes that their ski area, Breadloaf, now has a homologated race course.
If it is virtuous to stand up against planet-threatening policies, like enabling the XT pipeline, then why can’t xc skiers stand up against a handful of European FIS delegates that come up with a environment-unfriendly policy to homologate race courses? This policy requires bulldozers to be fired-up, unnecessary amounts of diesel to be burned and more trees cut. And all of this to make perfectly ski-able trails wider than most highways that cars and trucks travel.
Thanks to skiers not being able to “Just Say No” (an old Republican president’s wife’s saying) to FIS policy makers – now many of our ski trails are much wider and have more surface area. This means grooming costs and fuel usage increases. And when it comes to snowmaking – the cost and power usage increases. That doesn’t seem very “green” (unless you are a trail designer without a conscious or a heavy equipment rental company).
It seems that XC skiers have a shaky record for standing up for the planet at the local ski racing level. The unquestioning followers of the FIS homologation doctrine are proof-positive of this.
December 19, 2011 at 9:24 pm
As great as nordic skiing is, and as tiny as our collective footprint as skiers might be, we should not be given a free pass when it comes to environmental impact. We should not boast of owning a full quiver of skis. We should not claim it essential to truck snow in, and then out, of European cities to draw more attention to our sport. We, Easterners, should not make yearly trips to Europe or the Rockies to jump start our ski racing seasons. The endless winter is long gone; chasing it, through increased travel and snowmaking, only makes things worse.
The nordic ski racing community must recognize that our desire to ski faster, better, and for longer does damage, though small, to our environment. Perhaps because our collective footprint is small, many do not see this as a problem. Nonetheless, each community member should at least reflect on their priorities.
December 19, 2011 at 9:30 pm
Crazy comments man ! Where on earth is the big picture ! Seems only Bill can see it. Bulldozing a hill, ya man, fight tha FIS powers !!!! Ignorant guilty plant killerz !
December 19, 2011 at 9:49 pm
This is all great info. I don’t know anyone who would not want a better environment and make sacrifices needed.
I like the information presented by Mr. McKibben but it seems very hypocritical to tout Middlebury College Ski Team as the leader. I am sure that Coach Andrew Gardner is doing what he believes is best for the team’s performance but hasn’t Middlebury Ski Team use a van to transport skis out to West Yellostone to save the Middlebury skiers hassle and money while the team flies. Is this worth 4000 miles of fuel? Couldn’t they find a place closer to ski and save all this fuel?
No disrespect for the team but the actions don’t fit the flag being raised.
December 19, 2011 at 10:01 pm
The point I was trying to make with Audrey, but was perhaps too inarticulate to get across, is that the central problem is not your individual actions. You could all stop driving to ski races tomw and the effect on the atmospheric carbon concentration would be…slight. However, if we manage to join in effective political action that attaches a price to carbon, then we will send a signal that every economist who has studied the issue is convinced is our only real hope of reining in fossil fuel consumption. That’s why I spend my time the way I do, and it’s why some of us have had to go to jail, etc. And it’s why I like Middlebury so much–not only has the college taken responsible action on its own (trees cut building trails end up in the college biomass energy plant) but its also produced a generation of young leaders of the national and international environmental movement.
So my advice would be to stop worrying about who’s pure (basically no one) and start worrying about how to be effective. Which I think mostly involves strong political action.
In other news, how ’bout that Simi Hamilton?
December 19, 2011 at 10:08 pm
Re: Comments 10,11, 13
I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by this sort of hypocrisy. That’s the trouble I see with “Green Team”–it’s easy enough to name yourself that, put up posters encouraging people to recycle, “buy local,” etc., but when it comes time to make any real sacrifice (e.g., skip a trip to Europe), that’s not even considered.
(And air travel is probably the only thing they’re involved with having a measurable impact on the environment.)
December 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm
I think it’s great you’re engaging us like this–it’s very helpful. I take your point about not worrying about purity; I think there’s a larger issue of who gets to appoint themselves “leaders” and how much legitimacy/sway they have among the larger community.
Salon.com carried an article I believe you wrote on the Keystone protest. It had a picture of a protester with a big grin being carried away by police. There were a number of comments along the lines of “that self-satisfied smile encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the environmental movement today.”
I think that’s the sentiment driving a lot of the criticism here (even if it seems like nit-picking). Certainly we all know you “walk he walk,” but a lot of others seem more focused on self-promotion (and, yes, indulging their egos maybe) than effective action.
December 19, 2011 at 11:07 pm
Bill is right, no one is pure, and if you say you are, you’re living in a shack in Montana. I think if you do what you can, you make conscious decisions and some conscious sacrifices, the individual can enjoy life to the fullest without causing too much harm.
It’s when the corporations get involved, the big time politics, the BP oil companies sponsoring commercials for vacations to the Gulf Coast; I think that is when the damage gets done. How can you stop at as an individual? Well, becoming educated is one way (Midd College), going to jail might be another. But for most of us, I think it is supporting politicians that protect the environment, donating to causes that help the environment, and also supporting others brave enough to risk the consequences of extreme political dissidence.
The facts are in front of us. How we change our course is up for debate, and also a choice we all get to make.
As for Simi, he did have a hell of a race, Kikkan must be giving him pointers!
December 19, 2011 at 11:13 pm
Well, I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve had over 30 days of skiing on excellent snow conditions here in Alberta and in neighboring British Columbia in the past 5 weeks. Mankind has been a keen observer of climate for 100’s of years but accurate records have only been kept for a relatively short time. I think in the big scheme of things, this episode of planetary warming will only be a blip on the earth’s climate record.
As for the oil sands and the Keystone pipeline, great technical improvements are constantly being made and the environmental record is consistently improving. Geez, if you want to look at an environmental mess take a look in your own country in the gulf coast states.
December 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm
I’m from Calgary and I don’t agree with you. Furthermore I am appalled that my gov is using clean air officer to discriminate against artists. I might even question your post at this point. Who knows, you might be another propaganda agent ? http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/11/16/the-intersection-of-govt-art-and-politics/
As per rgp ski team. Seriously, have you ever been to Craftsbury ? Heaven lives there. Not hypocrite. Shame on this nice community for being so auto destructive. This is land snow and nature we are talking about. Freaky.
December 20, 2011 at 9:35 am
In a world where it was less fashionable to wear your virtue on your sleeve, green team would just be called “Concept II Factory Team”
December 20, 2011 at 9:52 am
Cause you just know they are reaping in millions from that Corporation called Green Inc ? What the hell ? I could never blame GRP of green washing or Concept II of being greedy. Nice work bully.
December 20, 2011 at 10:07 am
A very interesting debate filled with the very important topics of the day: global warming, economics and Simi Hamilton. Personally, I grew up admiring Bill Koch (the other one with an Oly medal) and despising guys like Bill Koch (the current one). This would be the ultimate debate: Bill Koch vs. Bill Koch! And speaking of Bill Koch (the first one), where have you gone Joe Dimaggio? I’ve heard that you’re down at the end of the road (literally) in VT, skiing the backcountry trails and enjoying life. I would love to hear from you and your 45 plus years of global skiing perspective.
December 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm
Hey muskeg, say hello to this one in the guardian. Even Canada can’t measure any improvements done. You are being fed pure propaganda, so kind of funny that anyone would question Bill who obviously stands by millions of dollars in trafficking influence. Also, please be advised that the Canadian gov is slowly staving Environment Canada and any atmospheric science studies, stopping any type of funding which, in Canada, is 100% gov driven.
December 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm
Being a student of the science of climate change I have noticed a marked shift in the position of many of the scientists engaged in this work. Based on conversations and in Q&A in talks, many seem to have come to the conclusion (either publicly or privately) that the potential for doing anything meaningful w/r/t global warming is a lost cause. Rather, they contend that it is now time to begin addressing how we might live with the consequences. One of the casualties of the reality of climate change is Nordic Skiing (and Alpine skiing to a lesser, but very real, extent – however, the installed infrastructure for snow-making will mitigate near term snow deficiencies for Alpine). The Nordic community, as pointed out by Mr. McKibben, cannot have even a small impact on the warming vector we are currently riding. So… what to do.
Well, first of all, arguments aimed at pointing to the miniscule amount of per-capita energy expended to improve existing Nordic ski trails and keep them groomed pales in comparison to the 250 kWh/day consumed by the average US resident. For calibration, the European average is 80 kWh/day per resident. A large fraction of the additional average per capita energy use in the US is due to transportation (i.e. primarily individual car and truck use) and is a direct consequence of our commitment in the US to a “suburban” lifestyle. Let’s not quibble about small amounts of per capita energy use for allowing ourselves the pleasure of an enjoyable, fast ski, rather let’s look at our lifestyles where the real energy consumption is.
Living in close proximity to your work, to stores, and, in this case, to ski trails is a big step to lessening the burden you place on energy production, not to mention the decreased burden you will realize on your finances. Being fortunate enough to be able to earn a living and be close to your work and stores and have local ski trails is a rare but still desirable situation. Making lifestyle choices to approach such an idealized situation is what is difficult for many of us in the US, but is perhaps the only real thing that a Nordic enthusiast (or anyone for that matter) can do to set an example of a more sustainable lifestyle…. and have some, although small, incremental positive effect on the reliability of snow in our lifetimes.
December 20, 2011 at 10:26 pm
Canadians, demand a change in government at the national level and don’t forget about environmental impacts that occur in the hinterlands, far from the urban/suburban population centers (centres for the anglophiles).
The U.S. does not have a great record at environmental stewardship, but per capita, what is being done in the tar sands extraction given the impacts and the externalizing of the costs, pushes Canadian policy into developing world levels…