We could take up this whole page with the accomplishments of National Geographic “Adventurer of the Year” Jeremy Jones. From Alaska to Nepal, he’s been there, summited and shredded that. Between pioneering big mountain snowboarding, Jones founded the non-profit Protect Our Winters, and now spends a fair amount of time ascending the capitol’s white steps. In celebration of the launch of the Ben & Jerry’s and New Belgium Brewery flavor collaboration supporting Protect Our Winters, we sat down with Jones to talk disappearing snow, political action and climate change.
How are skiers and snowboarders on the frontline of climate change?
Jeremy: As a skier or snowboarder, you really need to be in tune with the weather and snow conditions. You get a really good understanding from being out there every day of when change is occurring in the mountains, especially when it comes to snow levels. For example, some of my favorite low-elevation areas to ride have been wiped out. And the only reason I know that is because I love snowboarding in these certain zones that require a normal snow level, and it’s sad to see those zones wiped off the table.
What effects from climate change have you seen in your own travels, or right in your own back yard?
Jeremy: In Europe they take really good records of their glaciers, because they have been living amongst them for so long. And to see the rapid decline of glaciers in the last 40 years, and even sped up in the last 10 years was alarming. Another example was when I was in Canada and this ski area closed. I asked, “Why is this thing closed” And they said, “We don't get snow here any more.” In my head I’m like, “Wow! That’s pretty heavy duty, and thank God that hasn’t happened at my home resorts. But what am I going to see in the next 30 years?”
Fast forward 8 years later, and there’s been some alarming concerns in my own mountain range in California. One of the main reasons I live where I live is because of the chair lift KT-22 at Squaw Valley. It’s struggled to stay open the last 4 years and has largely been closed. And in the 20 years previous to that, I can’t remember a year where come February, or really, come January, that KT-22 is not open. I mean, we’re at this point now where it’s like, “Oh, it’s a good winter, KT-22 was open 60 days this year.” And that was just not the benchmark of a good or a bad winter 6 years ago.
Why did you start Protect Our Winters?
Jeremy: By 2005, I had this consuming concern about climate change being a real deal issue. At that time, I was endorsing a bunch of products and we wanted to take a cut of that and put it towards climate change. I reached out to friends in the environmental field and said, “Hey, where should I send this check?” One of them got back to me and said, ”You guys as a user group, as a community, are blowing it on climate change and you need to start a foundation!”
I did not like that answer. I was like, “Who am I to start an environmental foundation?” I have this large carbon footprint, I didn’t go to school for the issue. But I had a ton of connections in the media and the industry, and I was working with a bunch of companies and knew a bunch of pro riders. I was having this internal debate, and it just wouldn’t go away so I just said, “I’m going to start this thing.” I knew from the start that for it to work, that the community needed to embrace it. I found web designers, found lawyers to do the membership application, and it took me two years to get it off the ground. We launched POW in 2007.
How has climate change awareness and the policy landscape shifted since then?
Jeremy: There’s been some ebb and flow of times where we had to defend that climate change was actually real. Right now, essentially we’re at a time where we don't spend a lot of energy on defending it, it’s getting widely accepted.
On the policy side, it’s tricky. Our first trip to Washington was to try and help get the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed, which was going to be a big deal. There was all this momentum. But that effort failed, and the harsh reality is there hasn’t been legislation of that significance back on the table since then. So when you look at that, you're like, “Wow, man. We’ve been swimming upstream!” But now we’ve had some exciting progress in Utah where we’re elevating the voices of the winter sports community there to get the political leadership to embrace the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which really is the most historic step forward.
Even if students are too young to vote, if they can be taught the power of elected officials, they can influence them. I tend to focus on the few students who are likely to truly care and want make an impact on the world of climate change. The students that approach me, ask for internships or volunteer opportunities, and who seek grant money for recycling programs, education opportunities, and further resources. I love those kids. In college, I became one of them.
And what about the challenges in your own industry?
Jeremy: We just launched our new site and listed our partners and what level they contribute. It’s really disheartening how few outdoor or snow sports companies are part of Protect Our Winters. That is unacceptable in my mind— not that they need to be a part of Protect Our Winters, but they need to be doing their part. The reluctance of them to sign on to letters pushing for real action on climate. There’s still so much fear in the industry to put a stake in the ground and say, “Climate change is real. We need to do something about it.”
It’s cliché sounding, but people really can vote with their wallet. And it’s not that you should only support the 0.01% of the companies that take climate seriously. It’s that you should go to your favorite company that’s not doing anything actively, and say, “Please, I want to keep supporting you, but up your game!”
What are the obstacles you see for companies that want to get involved?
Jeremy: The exciting thing is that there are tons of solutions. The frustrating thing is how climate change has become very politicized, and businesses are reluctant to anger half their customers by saying climate change is real. So my personal goal, and something that we’re trying to do at Protect Our Winters, is to depoliticize climate change. When we say, “Vote for the environment,” it places the focus on the issue vs. the politics.
The majority of our elected officials don’t believe in human-caused climate change and that’s a huge problem. That is the problem, by the way. Not just “a huge one,” that is the only thing that is holding us back.
How can your average skier, snowboarder, or just someone who loves winter, go out and use their right as a citizen to vote for climate?
Jeremy: We’re trying to support people being way more engaged, in not just the presidential elections, but Senate and town elections, using their voices to demand more from their elected officials.
For example, in a Park City, Utah town meeting, the residents brought climate change to the table, saying “We want to take carbon reduction seriously and make real changes as a town.” Protect Our Winters and our partners brought in key figures: business owners, professional riders, local people who have a large voice. And the vote at the meeting came out in support of making carbon reduction a main priority of the town. We work a lot with the White House, but at the end of the day, we’re learning that working at these town levels is equally important.
Can you talk about POW’s role in getting Utah on board with the Clean Power Plan?
Jeremy: Utah has got a ton of coal-powered plants, and the state had said that they would push back on complying with the Clean Power Plan. So we led an effort that harnessed the voices of the winter sports community in the state with pro athletes writing op-eds, holding town meetings, letter-writing campaigns, social media and other grassroots methods that helped make a big difference. Now the governor has publicly said that he’s going to submit a plan to comply— and I’d like to think that the voices of Utah’s $1.2 billion winter sports community helped him recognize the importance of supporting it.