Only in the rarified world of destination ski markets do Vail Resorts Inc. and the Aspen Skiing Co. seem all that different. They both sell pristine nature, adventurous sport and pampered luxury to the world's wealthiest people. Vail, a publicly owned corporation, has a somewhat more diversified market with its resorts more proximate to major metropolitan areas, both in Colorado and in California. Aspen's has private owners, the Crowns, a family from Chicago that gained Forbes 400 wealth in the trenches of industrial activity and military manufacturing.
But in the realm of social action, the two companies, like their hometowns, couldn't be more different. Aspen has always been eager to raise a voice about issues of the day, while Vail is intrinsically more cautious.
The different approaches were evident in December. Early in the month, Save our Winters, a group partly financed by the Aspen Skiing Co., released a report authored by a New Hampshire professor warning of havoc ahead for ski areas because of rising temperatures caused by human-caused greenhouse gases. Among those quoted in the reports was Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.'s vice president for sustainability, who called on industry officials to "get off their asses" and treat climate change like an "existential threat."
Soon after, Rob Katz, the chief executive of Vail Resorts, had an op-ed in The Denver Post that seemed to be a direct response. "Count me in the category of someone who is very worried about climate change, but also someone who tries not to look at every weather pattern as 'proof' of something,'" he wrote.
Science is on his side in this. It's tempting to see the Apocalypse in every extreme of weather, whether drought or epic snowstorms, hurricanes or pine beetles. Climate scientists have typically warned against hasty conclusions. Indeed, while many saw in Katrina, the hurricane that wrecked New Orleans in 2005, as evidence of a storm fuelled by the energy of expanding global heat, the consensus opinion of scientists was that the storm intensity fell within the natural range of variability.
Climate change will only clearly become evident in the rear-view mirror, has been the cautious and standard attitude. Warming is clear enough. In places, such as higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, earlier spring melt is clear. But other things are not so clear.
Recently, with Hurricane Sandy, the debate began again. Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who is farther on the edge than most of his colleagues, ventured on one radio interview that he believed the hurricane had 10 to 15 per cent more energy because of global warming.
Then, in Katz's op-ed came this: "But to the folks trying to alarm people with images of melting snow, here is the dirty little secret: When the effects of climate change really show up, no one will care about skiing at Aspen and Vail. They will be rightly focused on the wildlife, natural habitat and people of our planet, about the sea levels, flooding and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy."
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