Protect Our Winters and Save the World
by Eric Hansen
Jeremy Jones is not an obvious pick for a leader in the fight against global warming. A National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, an O’Neill-sponsored big mountain snowboarder, and the owner of his own company, Jones Snowboards, the 39-year-old is plenty busy.
He’s also no organization man. By his own account, he barely graduated high school. And before starting the Protect Our Winters nonprofit in 2007, beyond tracking the next low-pressure system, he didn’t think too deeply about the future of snow. “I definitely wasn’t some enviro driving a veggie-oil car,” he says.
But while traveling the world for film shoots and ripping his local mountain, California’s Squaw Valley, he started to wonder if it was just him, or if indeed winters were growing more unpredictable. One winter Alaska was getting hammered; the next, it was almost dry. A little bit of research suggested there was a genuine problem—ski seasons were getting shorter and more erratic. So Jones did what many do when faced with a problem of grave severity. He pulled out his checkbook. He set aside proceeds from his signature boards, enlisted the help of an environmentalist friend, and looked for a suitable nonprofit to support. Problem was, they couldn’t find a single advocacy group representing America’s 20 million snow sports enthusiasts. “My friend said, ‘You need to start your own thing!’” says Jones. Two years later, that’s exactly what Jones, reluctantly, did. And Protect Our Winters was born.
POW, as it’s called, is now simply awesome. Based in Pacific Palisades, California, the nonprofit advocacy organization touts 30,000 members and dozens of corporate sponsors, including big names and big money like The North Face, Clif Bar, Patagonia, Vans, and the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. The group lobbies elected officials, speaks at dozens of schools, and commissions studies on how global warming affects the $61 billion American snow sports industry. (Hint: not positively.) The goal is to unite skiers and snowboarders and everyone involved in winter sports against policies and practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions. More than that though, POW works to change the tone of climate change discussions from doom and gloom to hope and action.
Part of their success is likely due to the fact that Jones is such a reluctant savior. He has insisted from the beginning that POW shouldn’t be flamboyant, but efficient. “From the get-go, I thought, in order for this to work, it can’t be a Jeremy Jones foundation,” he says. “We need people to rally around it and we need to put a microscope on the work.” Early on, Jones convinced lawyers, website designers, public relations firms, and marketing man Chris Steinkamp, currently POW’s executive director, to volunteer their services. He made sure that at least 85 cents of every dollar went to programs, not paychecks or slush funds. And then POW did something truly hard: The group made joining the fight against climate change cool.
It’s a vital point given how dry the science has been in the past. It helps that climate change is no longer a debatable concept. In August, the United Nations warned that humans are “extremely likely” to have been the “dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” and warned of “abrupt and irreversible” changes to our planet if carbon dioxide continued to be emitted at present rates.
Nonetheless, fighting climate change is not sexy, even by the relatively low standards of environmental groups. There is no global warming backhoe to chain oneself to or global warming owl to rally around. The fight is so large that it can appear to exist on an altogether inhuman scale. We are, after all, talking about the entire globe. So Jones put a face on the fight. He volunteered his hale mug, not unlike Bono did for African debt relief in the 1990s, and quickly attracted many more pro athlete ambassadors to the cause.
POW has since signed up some 60 winter sports athletes, from China to Michigan, from Olympic medalists to X Games champs, from other big mountain snowboarders to cross-country skiers. The POW Riders Alliance lends its voice to environmental films like last spring’s Momenta, pens op-eds and talks warming on-camera, and creates large-scale artwork. At this year’s Higher movie premiere (the third installment of Jones’s well received human-powered snowboarding series) Riders Alliance athletes asked the audience to sign a huge banner and write why they want a cooler planet. The overarching goal of the Riders Alliance is to bring still more people into the fold, and to encourage other skiers and boarders to adopt The POW Seven, which is an outline of the easy ways that we can all advocate for colder, longer winters. Number one on the list is “Get political.” Number three is “Find Your Biggest Lever.” Not flamboyant—efficient. Sarah Laskow, writing in environmental magazine Grist, called The POW Seven “the best green action plan we’ve ever seen.”
The POW Seven fits in POW’s vision of creating smart programs—as opposed to haranguing people into recycling. “We’re a little too far down the timeline for that,” says Porter Fox, author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and The Future of Snow. Instead, POW is focused squarely on maximizing their impact—finding that big lever. In this case that means using the Riders Alliance to help recruit an army of young soldiers to the fight against climate change—and through them, urge politicians to do the right things. Now.
Since launching in 2011, POW athletes have visited more than 50 schools in a program cosponsored by The North Face called “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes.” At the schools they lead assemblies, play some gnarly clips, and then get into an engaging talk about how the 1.4-degree increase in temperature since 1800 is, well, melting snow. “That generation is so much more up to the challenge than baby boomers,” Jones says. “They’re like, ‘We want the same world you grew up in. Why is this even up for discussion?’”
Things in Washington, D.C. are a bit trickier. Each year, a dozen athletes from the Riders Alliance and a half dozen representatives from the likes of Burton, Patagonia, and Aspen Skiing Company spend a whirlwind day on the hill lobbying senators, congressmen, and members of the EPA. On a recent trip, Jones ended up in hiking boots, having forgotten his dress shoes. And he still needs help tying his tie. But thankfully, POW’s fish-out-of-water status inside the Beltway also plays to their advantage.
“What virtually all the senators and congressmen said to us is, ‘You know what, I agree with what you’re doing. Make me do it, force me, on a local level, to vote your way.’ In other words, if we can build a groundswell around these issues, then they have to act on it. Which is just what POW is doing, what it’s great at doing. We can move the needle.” —Chris Davenport
“In Washington, a lot of the senators and people hear the same thing over and over from lobbyists,” says executive director Steinkamp. “But when athletes show up, it’s different.” He recalls a POW visit to Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska who has been a notorious climate change flip flopper. The POW folks expected the meeting to last 10 minutes. Instead, it lasted an hour. No coal-fired power plants were mothballed, but a surprising alliance was formed. Murkowski, it turned out, is a skier, and her nephew is a founder of ski film company Sweetgrass Productions.
One of POW’s biggest successes so far was on June 2 of this year. Knowing the EPA was likely to announce stricter carbon emissions standards for power plants, POW turned its members and fans into Tweeting, Instagraming, Facebooking cheerleaders. “We reached out to everyone and said, ‘Here are sample Tweets, here are some good facts, here are other things you can do.’ And then we just lit the place up,” says Jones. Internet slacktivism it was not. At the end of the business day, a staffer at the White House called POW to personally thank them for the support.
“I’ve lived here for 12 years and the snowfall just isn’t as consistent. At least Mammoth is high enough that the freezing level is pretty consistent, but we’re still seeing drastic swings. Four years ago, we had our absolute best season on record, followed by our absolute worst.” —Kimmy Fasani
PHOTOGRAPH Erin Hogue
To say that POW faces a host of formidable foes is an understatement. The oil industry, for example, has reserves of crude and other fossil fuel discoveries that it is not keen to abandon, or have regulated. So while POW chips away, the big five oil companies lobby Congress to maintain the status quo—spending an average of $445,000 on Capitol Hill each day, according to Fox.
Even more daunting, recent studies show that somehow, despite the wealth of science, half of Americans still doubt that human-caused global warming exists, not to mention could cause “abrupt and irreversible” changes.
Jones and POW respond with firsthand stories, or when necessary, they unleash the wonky facts. In May, the White House released the third National Climate Assessment. The president’s science advisor summarized the scientific consensus on global warming. “On the whole,” he said, “summers are longer and hotter, with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours. People are experiencing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies. And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”
With its clear focus on winter, POW is able to extract the essential information of concern to its winter-minded members and followers—many of which are included in the widely publicized study they and the Natural Resources Defense Council commissioned, Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. Overall, there will be more rain in coming decades, thanks to rising temperatures, and ski seasons will get shorter, thanks to longer, warmer shoulder seasons. Tahoe, California, already sees spring two weeks earlier than in 1961. By 2050, half of the ski areas in the Northeast, some 50 resorts, could close, mostly because they won’t have enough snow to open for the lucrative Christmas vacation. And resorts in the West could lose a quarter to all of their midwinter snowpack by 2100.
To this depressing news, Jones replies, “Dude, join POW.”
More important than securing another $20 membership fee is simply increasing membership, increasing the size of the tribe. The more people POW represents in D.C., the more convincing it is with political wafflers. And the sooner Jones, and all of us, can get back to doing what we really want to do: riding deep snow.
On April 29, our partners at Protect Our Winters (POW) are marching to Make America Deep Again. We’re with them. To help get you on board, we’re dedicating the prime real estate on our site to a smattering of the POW content that Mountain Media has produced over the years. Check it out, get inspired, then follow this link http://protectourwinters.org/join-a-march/ to find a mountain town march near you. #March4POW