What the UN Climate Conference Means for Snowboarding

Falling in love with snowboarding can lead to short-term memory loss. Just ask the riders currently digging into a West Coast buffet of powder if they remember the last two winters when snowfall fell to record lows, or the fact that the region’s snowpacks decreased an average of 23 percent from 1955 to 2015. Nope, too busy turning and burning through 54-inch storms. When your life revolves around a sport like snowboarding, it's hard to not be myopic in focusing on the here and now. Getting lost in the present moment is, after all, one of the most beautiful things about strapping into a snowboard.

But it's just those moments that are at risk from climate change. Paris might seem like light years away from the mountains we hold dear, but over the past two weeks, this European capitol hosted a historic conference that laid out a plan to prevent climate change from spinning out of control. The only catch? It’s still up to us to turn solutions into reality. I had the opportunity to attend the COP21— here's what leaders agreed on in Paris and why it’s critical to snowboarding.

World Leaders Agree on Slowing Climate Change

On November 30th, the largest gathering of heads of state arrived at the Paris UN Climate Change Conference (COP21). It wasn't the first time the UN tried to address climate change—as the catchy COP21 title implies, the 20 prior Climate Change Conferences didn't yield much progress. Past COPs didn't even try to include carbon emissions by still-developing countries, including China (now the biggest carbon emitter in the world and arguably the biggest economy), and the US itself walked out on the last big agreement, the Kyoto Protocol in 1992.

We’ve been breaking global heat records year after year, for a decade and a half now, and 2015 is on track to be the latest to top this list. This time around, climate change was finally seen as an immediate threat, and many of the 190-plus countries attending the Paris conference simply couldn't afford another COP failure.

Within snowsports, we’ve had years of anecdotal and scientific evidence on the industry-ending effects of shortened winters and rising temperatures. At an international level, study after study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points toward impacts we're already experiencing, and the irreversible and cumulative chaos if we allow climate change to continue.

While governments wallowed on a binding agreement to limit fossil fuel emissions, business leaders got sick of waiting and dropped in on clean tech innovations themselves. And a growing "people's climate movement" mobilized hundreds of thousands around the world in a call for an immediate and just shift to a fossil-fuel-free future.

Even before Paris, COP21 differed from the last COP in Copenhagen six years ago, as nations representing 95 percent of global emissions pledged significant emissions reductions. This time, the US emerged as a major player—not only committing to our own reductions in the face of a congress bent on blocking President Obama's Clean Power Plan, but ultimately urging outliers like China and India to join on a decision that needed to be unanimously accepted by over 190 countries.

And after two weeks of heady debate and all-night discussions, Paris did what all the other COPs failed to do: it produced a landmark agreement and an international pathway to reducing carbon emissions across the world. Bam.

Jesse Huffman's point of view from COP21.
Jesse Huffman’s point of view from COP21.

What That Means For Snowboarders

What does this all mean for winter as we know it? That forecast isn't clear yet. The Paris deal is being applauded by some as a miracle of diplomacy and a new era of international collaboration. Others are pointing to the fact that current commitments from countries won't limit additional warming much more than three degrees by 2100. That’s a good deal more than the two degrees scientists warn will trigger irreversible changes to our weather, and much more than the 1.5 degrees that developing, poor and coastal communities say is the maximum before loss of life due to flooding, drought, famine, and disease jumps into in the millions.

Try to understand how the "Paris Deal" will actually reduce emissions and you could end up down an Internet rabbit-hole of cat-video proportions. That's because after so many failures to produce a legally binding treaty, the COP21 agreement is almost completely voluntary, with actual measures to reduce emissions up to each country to craft and implement. The main Paris deal requirement is for transparent evaluations of progress and a five-year check up— when the plan is to have each country deepen their emissions reductions. What's next? The COP countries will get back together in 2023 to see where everyone is at.

“Basically the agreement is just that…an agreement,” explains Olympic and X Games Gold Medalist and environment activist Gretchen Bleiler, who was at the COP21. “We basically have ten years to work together as a global community in order to preserve not just our winters, but an environment that makes living on planet earth inhabitable for human beings.”
We got commitments from coalitions at international, national, city and individual levels for a rapid development and deployment of renewable technologies— and pumping the brakes on fossil fuels. Bill Gates committed two billion dollars in personal investment. But we didn't get anything as clear as a law that says, "thou shall not pollute." The US itself was one of the main countries preventing the Paris Deal from becoming legally binding— everyone knew that the US Congress would never ratify a climate treaty.

Gretchen Bleiler has become one of the most outspoken and educated members of the snowsports community on the issue of climate change. Photo: Chris Wellhausen
Gretchen Bleiler has become one of the most outspoken and educated members of the snowsports community on the issue of climate change. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

It's Still Up To Us

For folks fighting against climate change, this is a moment to take a breath and recognize that world leaders are aware of the impacts we're already experiencing, and the threat of a future thrown into chaos. Paris is known as the “City of Light,” and the COP21 embodied that to a tee, illuminating climate change like never before. Now that all the COP21 countries have packed up and headed home with the responsibility of following through, it’s up to us to make sure that light doesn’t waver. “Coming together and agreeing to a global strategy is really a huge step in the right direction,” says Bleiler. “But now each country must go back and do the work, and then just as importantly, reconvene in another five years to assess what has been done and reassess how things can get even better. ”

Back in the mountains, that responsibility trickles down to each and every snowboarder. Before Paris, the push was to demand action from world leaders. After Paris, that directive is still there—with the added imperative that to limit warming to1.5 degrees, we can’t rely on governments alone. Mountainous regions across the world face similar challenges from climate change. But much like the era when snowboarding first made its debut at ski resorts, the solutions and barriers to progress differ dramatically around the globe: some places embraced riders right off the bat, while some required arcane tests administered by ski instructors who never rode themselves. But no matter what they faced when they rolled up to the lifts, every snowboarder was there to push the sport farther.

“What I have learned in Paris is that there is no silver bullet solution to limiting our warming to no more than two degrees,” says Bleiler. “It’s more like ‘silver buckshot,’ meaning that we will have to divide the task up among a wide array of existing partial fixes that add up to a whole solution—which is why leadership in every sector, and at every level, is necessary for change.”

That’s why activists like Bleiler are encouraged that there is no single solve for climate change: the goal of radically reducing carbon emissions is shared, but way we get there will be up to each individual and region to determine. The Paris Deal boils down to a technocratic document that would make even the most committed policy wonk glaze over. But making it come alive in the real world depends on the DIY ethos that every dedicated snowboarder knows is at the core of our culture.

Some of the Protect Our Winters Riders Alliance crew in Washington, DC, this fall advocating for policies that reduce fossil fuel emissions. Photo: Protect Our Winters
Some of the Protect Our Winters Riders Alliance crew in Washington, DC, this fall advocating for policies that reduce fossil fuel emissions. Photo: Protect Our Winters

And Yeah, You Can Get Involved Too

In the US, winter tourism is a 66 billion dollar industry. That’s some serious weight in terms of carbon reductions and policy influence. Getting such a large group of companies, brands and industries to collaborate, however, will take a concerted and coordinated effort from some 23 million wintersports enthusiasts that power the 66 billion dollar giant. The good news is there’s already a lot of progress.

Hopefully you've heard about Protect Our Winters (POW), the non-profit founded by big mountain pioneer Jeremy Jones. POW started with grassroots awareness, and has grown to include education and activism from the local to national levels, recently garnering kudos from Congress for helping nudge the state of Utah toward accepting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In pretty much every mountainous region they’ve got organizers working on municipal levels to push progress on carbon reduction forward, making POW the first stop for participation.

“Not everyone is passionate about the same things, so the point is to just get involved and activate where you feel drawn, interested, curious or passionate,” says Bleiler. “There is a lot that needs to be done at every level, so we all need to get involved and stand up and either start implementing those changes where you can, or rally people around creating the demand for it.”

Other organizations are getting in the mix, also. The Climate Reality Project’s I Am Pro Snow program is building a coalition of 20 or more towns, business and ski resorts that are committing to transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy by 2030. It only makes sense that an industry dependent on consistently cold temperatures, and so vulnerable to the effects of climate change, would be leading the way nationally, but as a group, we’re still short on long-term vision and commitment. I’m not above that short-term memory loss. As I write this, we’re just a degree off the warmest Vermont December on record, the latest uptick in a warming trend that’s seen Burlington’s average temperature rise about three degrees since 1915.

If the state were inundated by snow mercury-busting cold like last year, I might just be distracted. But I just got back from the COP21 also, and what I picked up there is an inspiration for action, and sense of global unity and urgency around climate change that can’t be easily shaken.

So enjoy the pow, but let it also be a reminder of the just what’s at stake here. It’s a privilege to play outdoors, and it’s also a call to protect the most precious resource of all. Paris delivered a way forward, but it’s going to take everyone, everywhere, doing their part to pull it off. Or as Bleiler summed up the Paris Deal: “We basically have ten years to work together as a global community in order to preserve not just our winters, but an environment that makes living on planet earth inhabitable for human beings.”