'We Want to Be Like the NRA' - The Environmental Activist Using the Right's Tactics Against Them

Jeremy Jones has found a way to get right-wingers aboard the climate crisis train.
Jeremy Jones
Jeremy Jones. Photo: Soren Rickards

With his long hair and laid back drawl, Jeremy Jones is far from your typical political lobbyist. A two-inch scar down the right side of his face – the result of a high-speed encounter with a sharp chunk of ice in the mountains of British Columbia – is testament to a life spent working outdoors, and his general demeanour suggests a man who'd be more comfortable camping out with Extinction Rebellion than stalking the corridors of power.


But this 45-year-old professional snowboarder is the head of one of the canniest campaign groups currently fighting the climate crisis, one that's holding a multi-billion dollar industry's feet to the fire and making a difference in key political battlefields throughout the US. It's doing so by reaching across partisan divides and adopting approaches more often associated with the political right.

As early as 2005, Jones started noticing businesses closing, jobs disappearing and mountain towns dying as snowfall became less and less consistent. Climate change, he realised, posed not just an existential threat to his own livelihood, but to his entire community's way of life. In 2007, he set up Protect Our Winters (or POW), a charity aimed at raising awareness of the looming threat to his hometown of Tahoe, California, and to other mountain communities around the world.

It might not be instantly obvious how a career as a pro-snowboarder would equip you for political campaigning, but it gave Jones three distinct advantages: first, he had a public profile. Unlike in the UK, skiing and snowboarding are huge in the US, with over 10 million regularly active participants, according to the latest industry figures. By comparison, baseball, the "national past-time", has 15.9 million regularly active participants. Snowboarding might not be a spectator sport on the same scale, but Jones, widely recognised as one of the best riders in the world, has a significant following.


Second, having worked on different projects with numerous sponsors down the years (at one stage he was the face of Coors Light, alongside country music megastar Jason Andean), he was used to raising money and drumming up support. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he recognised that he needed to talk to people from all sides of the debate in a language they could understand.


Jones in Nepal. Photo: Andrew Miller

Jones might be a true blue Democrat, but the rural district around Tahoe is not. Yet climate change presents a problem for everyone who depends on the outdoors for their living. Fishermen, hunters, even gun rights advocates – all are potential allies, he explains: "We do POW events where we bring in a high-profile hunter to give a talk. People will sit there going, 'Yeah, I'm a Republican, but fuck I want action on climate. I'm out in the woods everyday, I see shit it is going down.'"

Meeting people on rhetorical territory that they feel comfortable on is an incredibly effective tactic, according to behavioural experts. Dr Andre Spicer is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the CASS Business School in London, who's written critically about the language and messaging used by climate activists in the past.

"Intergenerational justice" and "caring for the planet" might seem like self-evidently good ideas, he says, but research suggests that while they "really appeal to people who are on the left, they often turn off people who are more centrist or on the right". Similarly, while street protests might attract the most engaged people, they often smack of preaching to the choir.


In fact, Professor Spicer argues, talking about justice and taking to the streets may even be self-defeating – actively pushing people away rather than persuading them to get onside. Climate activists would be better off tailoring their message to their audience: "Issues about family and one's community, –that's the kind of language [you need] to appeal more to people on the right.

"If you look at other protest movements that have really fundamentally changed how society thinks about things, research suggests it happened mainly through one-to-one conversations, particularly with someone who is part of your 'in' group – part of your family or your profession, or someone who has some identity you share with them."

This, according to Professor Spicer, is historically how social attitudes really change. "With Protect Our Winters," he says, "what's quite good is they sound like they're appealing to a pre-existing identity: sportsperson, or hunter or whatever."

Jones uses a similar approach on his regular visits to Washington to lobby on behalf of the outdoor industry. Having set up his own eco-friendly snowboard brand when he took a step back from riding full-time, he's well-equipped to talk in terms that lawmakers understand: the language of business. "Our message is super simple," he explains. "This is an economic issue, this is a jobs issue. This is happening, we're seeing the effects, and it's killing us."


If skier and snowboarder numbers are large in the States, the wider outdoor industry is enormous – worth $427 billion (£329 billion), according to the latest US government statistics, or 2.2 percent of GDP. "The outdoor industry is bigger than the pharmaceutical industry, it's bigger than the extraction industry and it's bigger than the gun industry," says Jones.

Under Obama's centrist administration, Jeremy and his fellow campaigners found this economic message was well received. The President himself lifted language directly from one of POW's Economic Impact Assessments in his speeches, and in 2013 Jones was given a "Champion of Change Award" in a ceremony at the White House.

In the years since, however, as the culture war around climate has intensified, POW's activists have increasingly found that even economic arguments are falling on deaf ears. Trump's election marked a turning point, Jones says: "We view 2016 as the year we went from peacetime to wartime."

The language they use when lobbying lawmakers has changed again. And who better to lead an outreach to conservatives, from an organisation on wartime footing, than a former Navy SEAL?

Jones explains: "We've got this guy Josh Jespersen who did two tours of duty. As soon as I met him I was like, 'You're coming with me to Washington.' When he walks into a Republican's office in Washington and he's like: 'Hello sir, I'm a Republican, a proud American and a Navy SEAL, you need to help us with climate,' it's gold."


Photo: Jeremy Jones

At the same time as enlisting former servicemen, POW has been fine-tuning its ground game, doubling down on swing states where they can tap into the shared identities and interests that academics like Professor Spicer believe are so important. "We had a university do a study on all the places Trump won by less than 1 percent that have an outdoor community," says Jones, "and we have a master map with every climbing gym, ski area and outdoor store in these areas. We use those as hubs to build around."

For example: "North Carolina [a state won by Trump in 2016] is a big climbing zone, or Michigan [which Trump carried by a margin of just 0.23 percent in 2016]. You go on a climbing gym tour with Tommy Caldwell [star of the film The Dawn Wall, and a POW ambassador] and everyone wants to hear him speak. Then you talk about climate change."

It's not just giving talks either. "Have you seen that movie Vice? The one about Dick Cheney?" Jones asks at one point. "You see them doing those focus groups – that's what we do in these places, focus group after focus group after focus group. Asking, 'Do you like it when we say this?' 'Does this ad piss you off?' 'Do you like this ad, or not like that ad?'"

It might sound almost Machiavellian, but when Jones looks at the powerful forces arrayed against him he sees little choice. The anti-climate lobby, fronted by people like Rush Limbaugh, is so bluntly effective with its messaging that Jones admits to being impressed. He's also constantly frustrated at his own industry's refusal to fight its corner in the way the fossil fuel or gun industries have.

"At POW, we look at the NRA and think, 'We want to be like them,'" he says. In this context, adopting the opposition's tactics makes sense. After all, he's fighting for his friends, his family and the survival of his hometown – not at some unspecified point in the future, but right here and right now.

Principled protest is all well and good, and Jones certainly isn't averse to marching ("I went on one with Greta Thunberg last year," he says at one point. "She's great, isn't she?"). But given the urgency of the issues he sees a pressing need to engage with the opposition on their terms, using their language, and to have those conversations inside the halls of power, rather than just standing on the street outside shouting.

In the end, however misguided someone might be about the climate crisis, he would always rather talk: "When I get these keyboard warriors attacking me, my response is always, 'Hey, we're doing this event near you, why don't you come down? I just want to have a discussion.'"