More ‘stuff’ to consider

The Travel section of last Sunday’s New York Times was subtitled The Ski Issue, the annual attempt to inform Times readers about what is new and relevant in ski vacations. Going “green” and luxury are the two themes for the industry this year, according to the Times. “Ignore the S.U.V.’s crammed in the parking lot, and skiing might also seem like a sustainable sport.”

Yes, Whistler was mentioned — the Peak to Peak gondola and the Nita Lake Lodge were two new highlights noted as Whistler prepares to host the 2010 Olympics.

But perhaps more telling was a feature piece under the headline: “Resorts Prepare for a Future Without Skis”. The story was about how Swiss mountain resorts are dealing with climate change and dwindling snow. The focus, according to the Times’ story, is on “transforming… resorts with colossal spas, sleek architecture and other off-slope attractions.

“Big-name architects like Zaha Hadid are designing high-altitude ski features. Shopping centers are going up on mountain peaks. And venerable hotels like the Tschugen Grand are becoming all-weather resorts, in its case by adding a $30 million, 43,000-square-foot spa designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.”

Meanwhile, an essay in Saturday’s Globe and Mail by University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon discussed how the four reports presented this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are viewed as out of date, and what that means. The IPCC is the scientific intergovernmental body established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme that was, along with Al Gore, awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The exhaustive IPCC reports are generally credited with providing final, irrefutable proof of human-induced climate change and projecting its impacts.

Homer-Dixon’s essay points out that the IPCC reports “incorporate only scientific findings published up to about mid-2005, they don’t reflect almost two years of extraordinarily important results from multiple streams of research.” For instance, since mid-2005 the world has seen sharply higher global carbon dioxide emissions than the IPCC expected.

One consequence, as outlined by Homer-Dixon, may be carbon cycle feedback, a vicious circle where increased temperatures lead to increased amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. “…warming could become its own cause; it would no longer really matter what we do to mitigate our emissions of carbon dioxide. The global ecosystem would take over.”

The concept is big and scary, so big and scary that many of us feel helpless — it’s too big for us to do anything about, so we follow the lead of some governments and try to ignore it. We leave it to the world leaders gathered this week in Bali.

But Homer-Dixon’s message to members of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities when he spoke at their convention in September was to prepare for climate change. A question for Whistler is: should we prepare the way the Swiss resorts are, by building “more stuff”?

“More stuff”, former Whistler Mountain president Pat O’Donnell recently told Michel Beaudry, is the approach most mountain resorts have taken over the last 20 years to keep people coming. It’s behind the new $17 million treehouse kids adventure centre at Snowmass just as it’s behind each new lift or terrain park feature at Whistler. And it’s behind the RMOW’s struggle with the 2008 budget — collectively, we all want more stuff, from our governments and our ski areas.

Almost all this stuff can be justified. It’s not only what people want, it helps diversify the economy, it reaches out to new markets and demographics, it supports the investments already made, it provides new perspectives or experiences. All arguments worthy of consideration.

This is where it gets difficult. “Stuff” and climate change are, of course, related. So how do we weigh the merits of projects against their impact on the environment? No one lift or building is going to have a significant impact, but collectively, incrementally, they add up. As Mayor Ken Melamed said recently, the question we have to ask ourselves is: is it necessary?

That takes us back to the Swiss resorts and Whistler. They have decided to offer alternatives to skiing and snowboarding by building spas and shopping centres on the mountains. Is that the route Whistler should follow, or are the mountains — whether covered in snow or covered in fog and drizzle — at the heart of the Whistler experience?

It’s not a question that should be left to Whistler-Blackcomb or Tourism Whistler or the RMOW alone. It’s a question Whistlerites have to ponder. And talk about.

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