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Mountain athletes push progress over perfection in climate fight

Caroline Gleich remembers a decade ago when advocating for climate policy became an essential part of her career as a professional ski mountaineer. As she reported the impacts of climate change from far-flung corners she explored for her work, she was besieged.

“Told to shut up, called a glacier killer, a hypocritical ecoterrorist, a polluter. So many attacks and people saying the meanest things,” the Utah athlete said. “That had a silencing effect. So for a few years, I felt like I lost my voice on climate because I was afraid to speak up.”

Flying in planes for vacations. Driving trucks. Heating homes. Burning fossil fuels. It’s all a part of modern life, and for years climate activists have weathered bitter criticism of their globetrotting, gear-making impacts while urging corporations to reduce their emissions and calling on politicians to enact policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases damaging the ozone and warming the planet.

Protect Our Winters, or POW, the athlete-driven group on a mission to convert the enthusiasm of runners, skiers, climbers, paddlers and outdoor players into climate change advocacy, recently unveiled an ethos they are calling “Imperfect Advocacy,” emphasizing progress over perfection.

POW is hoping to mobilize the 34 million Americans who love to play outside as imperfect soldiers who admit their carbon impacts but remain dedicated to swaying corporations, elections and policy toward a carbon-neutral future.

The POW program accompanies the outdoor industry’s aggressive focus on reducing greenhouse emissions. On Tuesday the Outdoor Industry Association announced the Climate Action Corps, which unites outdoor brands, manufacturers and retailers in creating plans to reduce carbon footprints and sharing progress on those plans every year. Fifteen companies, including REI, Burton, Patagonia and The North Face, are founders of the Climate Action Corps.

Imperfect advocacy starts with simple math and deflecting the fossil fuel industry’s effort to shift responsibility for carbon footprints from companies to individuals, says Mario Molina, the executive director of POW. Sure, most Americans have a big carbon footprint, emitting an average of 22 tons to 24 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year living their modern lives. But emissions from one coal-fired power plant can exceed 20 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, Molina said, adding that about a third of annual carbon emissions worldwide come from 20 companies.

Skiers make their way down a run at Aspen Mountain in March 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“The math doesn’t add up. We can’t solve this by adding two Priuses to our roads. Not in the time frame we have,” he said. “What we need is a seismic shift in fossil fuel infrastructure. Our problem is a gigaton of carbon dioxide.”

To make that seismic shift, Molina said, the climate needs more activists. And they don’t have to be perfect.

“To argue that if your livelihood depends on travel you can’t be a genuine advocate for large-scale solutions that we need to address right now, that math doesn’t make sense,” Molina said.

For Gleich, her return to vocal and ardent climate activism came as she studied the strategies deployed by the fossil fuel industry, which shifted pressure for change to individuals.

“Once I realized the history of public influence and PR and how they have taken instruction from the tobacco industry, then it helped me find my voice again,” said Gleich, who is organizing a Climate Rally on Friday during the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. “We can’t afford to have anyone be silent right now.”

Molina has an analogy to demonstrate the all-hands-on-deck call for climate advocacy. Say you are an EMT and you arrive at a crash. One person has some scrapes and bruises.

Another is bleeding profusely. The priority would be to stem the critical loss of blood, right?

“Our priority should be stop the hemorrhaging of greenhouse gas emissions versus stopping people who are maybe dripping emissions,” he said.

POW built a tool on its website to help the not-quite-perfect climate advocate to measure and offset his or her carbon impacts. After measuring impacts from travel, lodging and fuel, users can purchase carbon offsets that capture gas at landfills or improve forest health or support energy efficiency projects.

Carbon offsets are not perfect, Molina said.“But it’s something you can do to start thinking about the fact that carbon has a cost,” he said. “It’s a pathway to engage in advocacy, which ultimately is the most important pathway to reducing emissions at scale.”

And maybe a little bit of guilt is good, said Tommy Caldwell, the legendary rock climber from Estes Park who works with POW as an advocate for state and federal policies that reduce carbon emissions.

“You have to find this right balance that’s going to make you the best you can be for the world,” said Caldwell, citing the famous quip from pioneering mountaineer Conrad Anker that professional adventure athletes “are the eyes and ears of the mountains,” capable of sharing the impacts of a warming world.

“Having a little bit of guilt can motivate you to do the right things. I think you need to look at who you are and what you can contribute to the world and figure out how to be most effective,” he said. “You are never going to be perfect. But what I’ve learned from climbing when you go out and try and accept that it won’t go perfectly, it usually works out.”

Hilaree Nelson climbs above Everest’s Western Cwn on her mission to ski the Lhotse Couloir in September 2018. (Photo by Nick Kalisz, provided by The North Face)

Telluride alpinist Hilaree Nelson just returned from a ski mission in Antarctica. Yeah, she burned some carbon to get there, she said. But she’s sharing what she saw: record warm temperatures, fog and rain, melting snow in the middle of winter.

“They’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s unbelievable how quickly it’s happening,” she said.

Snowboarding mountaineer Jeremy Jones started POW in 2007 as an effort to convert outdoor lovers into climate warriors. He travels the globe for his job as a professional athlete and head of Jones Snowboards, which uses recycled materials and sustainably harvested wood.

“And la-da-da-da. All great stuff, right, but if everyone here at Outdoor Retailer goes carbon neutral next year, it will be just a blip on the radar for CO2 reduction we need,” he said. “We need to start taking out bigger chunks of carbon. It’s important to live an examined life, but we are subsidizing fossil fuels, and collectively we need to change that system and embrace clean energy and embrace solutions. And you don’t need to apply and send in an application to say, ‘I want climate action now.’”

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