Photo: Olga Kolbakova / Alamy Stock Photo
Belstaff jackets and boat shoes; skiing in Verbier; houses in Parsons Green, chalets in Saas Fee. None of these are the kind of cultural signifiers you'd normally associate with environmental activists. In fact, if anything, they read like The Sound of Music as sung by Annunziata Rees-Mogg. Yet for one environmental charity, people who list these as their favourite things might be among the most valuable converts of all to the cause of climate justice.
Protect Our Winters (POW) was set up in 2007 specifically to raise awareness of climate change among skiers, snowboarders and the wider outdoor industry. Adopting a determinedly non-partisan, non-judgmental approach, they put on public events, lobby outdoor industry figures, orchestrate letter-writing campaigns and train volunteers to educate ordinary participants on the ground.The rationale for targeting skiers – and an industry that depends on snow to provide livelihoods – is obvious: if global warming continues at its current rate, research shows, 70 percent of the snow in the Alps will be gone by the end of this century. In the same timeframe, according to a recent study by the European Geoscience Union, around 90 percent of alpine glaciers will have melted away. This, the POW UK website states, would mean "the end of snowsports".
Of course, a few people missing out on their winter holiday will be far from the worst effect of unchecked global warming – especially when you consider the havoc that climate change looks set to wreak on the Global South. And yet, there are still good reasons to campaign on climate change in ski resorts. For starters, there are few places where its effects are more obviously visible. Showing people the reality of a receding glacier up close – as you can in Chamonix, for example – is a great way of galvanising them into action."There's a lot of research around why and when people decide to act," explains Lauren MacCallum, General Manager of POW in the UK, "and making it something personal is really important. It's easy to read about this stuff when you're in London or wherever, but when you're actually in the mountains it tends to be more hard hitting."
Then there's the fact that winter sports enthusiasts tend to be wealthier – and travel more – than the population as a whole. They're not all the rich right-wingers of popular caricature, of course; POW founder Jeremy Jones, a pro-snowboarder from Tahoe, California, and Lauren, who describes herself as "left-leaning", are cases in point. But in general, as she points out: "The people who can afford to go on a ski holiday are probably the ones who are contributing to climate change the most – by flying more, by consuming more overall and so on."POW also does more than just campaign for people to reduce their personal carbon footprint. "It's about getting people to understand and use their influence. A lot of these people, in their day jobs, have powerful spheres of influence, whether we like it or not," says Lauren. "Let's say someone works in Canary Wharf. They might work in investment portfolios, and it's saying: 'Hey, you know, if you love this as much as you say you do, if you want your kids to enjoy this, or if you want your assets in the Alps to still be valuable – as crass as that might be – you should probably take a look into this.'"Adopting a non-partisan approach means "we can speak to these people on a level – even if it's through snow sports – and say to them: When you go back to work on Monday, this is a way you can make a difference. If you're working for Ernst & Young and you say, 'Right, we're not going to insure any more sites that are going to drill or frack,' then we've cut off one massive artery to the heart."
"We don’t view climate change as a party issue [because] really anyone who loves to go outside can be a climate advocate," is how Jake Black, POW's US Programme Manager, puts it. In the States, this means they work not just with the "snowboarders, hikers, bikers [and] rock climbers" you might expect, but also with fishermen and even hunters. "Republicans who go deer shooting or advocate for gun rights will see the impact of climate change on the deer population," says Lauren. "We're just connecting to people through their passion, and I think that's a really effective way to do things."In the US, this non-partisan approach appears to be bearing fruit. Jake cites recent campaigns that have helped push climate change and renewables regulation through the legislatures in Colorado and Nevada – both of which are usually considered "purple" swing states. In Colorado, the bill passed by just two votes.The theory is that because their campaigns and volunteers are telling powerful people that something they love is under threat, while they're actually doing it, POW’s message hits home harder. And the idea that a skiing or hunting-loving hedge fund manager might have more clout than a penniless protester does, at least in our current system, make a kind of brutal economic sense. (That’s not to say POW are against direct action; "I think we need both pressures," is how Lauren, who joined the recent XR protests in a personal capacity, puts it. "But they’re different things.")
Of course, this focus on a non-partisan, hearts-and-minds approach, while hardly unique to Protect Our Winters, leaves them open to certain criticisms. If right-wing critics can accuse Extinction Rebellion of being too middle class, and question Greta Thunberg's legitimacy because her mother once sang in the Eurovision song contest (that well-trodden path to fame and fortune), then calling climate change campaigners who ski "trustafarians" is an all too obvious line of attack.Similarly, their approach presents issues for campaigners on the left. Angus Satow, one of the co-founders of Labour for a Green New Deal, gives short shrift to the idea that the climate crisis can be solved by individuals changing their habits. "We really need to move away from that," he argues. "I can see the logic, but what it lacks is a systemic analysis of how we got to this situation, which is our centuries-old economic system. The market mechanism cannot solve the climate crisis. We need to replace [it] with something new – we can't just tweak it."But for all these criticisms, there are large areas of overlap with POW: both organisations agree that the need to cut funding to fossil fuel companies is paramount; both have supported campaigns urging Barclays, specifically, to divest; and both are disgusted by the behaviour of the energy and finance industries more widely with regard to fossil fuel investments."Some people might say we're not being militant enough or we're not taking enough direct action," Lauren concedes. "But in all that disagreement in how you want to approach things – it might be civil disobedience, which XR are doing, or it might be a more leadership-based approach like ours – [we believe] it's more about shared values." The way she sees it, it's a question of getting as many people as possible, with as much influence as possible, pulling in the same direction – regardless of their voting patterns up to this point."Because let's face it, in 30 years time, when we're locked into a 2 degree or a 2.5 degree world, it doesn't fucking matter if you're a Tory or a Labour voter – it’s going to be shitter for everyone," she says. "Even though it's hard, we have to start trying to see our similarities rather than our differences. That might sound a bit hippy, and it might sound a bit pink and fluffy, but it's the truth."@Tris_Kennedy