By Tim Neville | Photograph by Trent Bona
Just before the snowboard competitions unfolded at the 2014 Winter X Games in Aspen, a group of pros practiced in the SuperPipe while, on the sidelines, a special visitor looked on. She was in her early 60s with a flare of downy-white hair, and she couldn’t tell a method from a melon. That’s to be expected when you’re the most senior official of the United States government to attend the games and have the president’s ear.
The visitor was Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and she had come to Colorado at the invitation of the nonprofit Protect Our Winters, which by then had established itself as one of the leading voices in the fight against climate change. For her, the group had done something the EPA was struggling to do: rally a whole new generation of young people, extreme sports fans, and winter sports enthusiasts around the cause.
The visit was a remarkable moment for the group. Before 2014, POW largely consisted of founder Jeremy Jones, executive director Chris Steinkamp, and six or seven skiers and riders proselytizing into the void. What POW had done that was unique, however, says Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Company’s sustainability director, was to weaponize athletes. It had taken a select few stars and made them activists. The POW climate warriors soon had a name, the Riders Alliance. The group has since ballooned to 72 athletes, and includes some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, people like Jimmy Chin and Ingrid Backstrom.
Now, POW is turning the Riders Alliance into an even mightier force, by bringing members to Squaw Valley, California, and arming them with the latest climate knowledge and strategy. The athletes take snoozy initiatives like a carbon tax and make it sexy through social media posts that reach multiple millions. Tell your bros that beltway bureaucrats think “flue gas desulfurization” is important and they’re snoozing. Show them a sad but rad Instagram post of a melted out couloir that pro skier Chris Davenport wishes he could ski and suddenly they’re calling Congress to support a clean coal bill. “There’s a certain cool factor POW has that other organizations don’t,” says pro skier and founding Riders Alliance member Davenport. “We can walk into a senator’s office and they’ll take pictures with us to show their kids.”
This December, 25 of POW’s athletes will gather at Squaw Valley to ski and ride in the morning and then hit the conference room for up-to-date science briefings from world-renowned researchers. Google may come to talk clean tech or Tesla will expound on solar power and battery storage. The athletes will pour over work plans for the coming year that may include writing op-eds, giving school presentations, and meeting with lawmakers. They’ll learn how to handle climate deniers (focus on the science) and how to gently steer interviews to address climate.
Perhaps the right people are listening. Renewable energy costs are falling; China and the U.S. have signed climate accords; and the global economy has outpaced carbon emissions for the first time in history. Still, last decade was the warmest in a sorry string of record-breaking hot decades.
But POW has no intention of backing down. Caroline Gleich and Jones are rounding up voters for the November election. Hilaree O’Neill and Angel Collinson are amping up their “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes” talks to high school students. In July, POW moved its headquarters from L.A. to Boulder to be closer to the heart of the winter sports industry.
For her part, McCarthy came to Aspen a believer and remains one. And thanks to POW, all around the country this winter a new crew of weaponized athletes and their followers will be dropping into the fight armed with the only methods that matter.
From the Early Winter 2016 issue.