“An existential threat.” “A driving issue.” “The challenge of our era.”
Those are just a few of the descriptions of climate change from panelists at a recent outdoor recreation gathering in Salt Lake City — a group that listed a variety of ways that it can affect Utah’s economy and quality of life.
While Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said climate change in Utah is “not often discussed very much at all except in a bizarre, ideological way,” Peter Metcalf, chief executive officer of Salt Lake-based Black Diamond Equipment, made it clear that he believes climate change is real and already having an impact on the outdoor recreation industry.
“As an industry, I think we are facing — and maybe I’m being a little melodramatic but only slightly — two of what I call existential threats. One is the threat to public lands … and the other one is global warming,” Metcalf said. “It is a true threat to this industry and its vibrancy.”
During the past 25 years, skiing and outdoor recreation have become one of the state’s major economic sectors. Utah is “especially exposed” to global warming because of its relatively low elevation, compared to Colorado, another outdoor recreation industry giant, he said. Unlike 25 years ago, Sundance and Park City get rain instead of snow at their base areas, which Metcalf described as “really disturbing” and with potential impacts on jobs, the overall economy, tourism and the market for second homes.
Reduced snowpacks affect the amount of drinking water available to Utahns and also the state’s whitewater rafting industry. Springs and intermittent streams are drying up quicker, hurting the state’s backcountry industry in summer. “Sick” forests are susceptible to fires, which can result in the closing of parks and forests, he added.
What’s more, the state’s recreation opportunities have prompted companies such as Goldman Sachs and Adobe to put large operations in Utah. Their leadership has indicated “they’re here, fundamentally, because of recreation, the access that we have here in this community to outdoor recreation, winter and summer,” he said.
As a result, global warming is a risk to important economic sectors and quality of life, but also “our ability to attract businesses into the state,” Metcalf said.
“All of these things really do have the potential to wreak havoc on our industry and already are beginning to.”
Beth Jensen, director of corporate responsibility for the Outdoor Industry Association, said the outdoor recreation industry — with a $646 billion annual economic impact and 6.1 million jobs — is facing a huge risk from climate change.
“Obviously, our industry is one of the among the first to feel the impacts of climate change,” she said. “With the fires we’re seeing in the Pacific Northwest and in California, of course, the snowless winters in other areas — in California they’re feeling the hit of both of those things this year — and just really the extreme weather, we’re really the first to feel that. … It’s a big hit to the outdoor recreation economy.”
Becker described outdoor recreation as “absolutely central and essential to what I view as a core driver of the success of our community, increasingly short-term but definitely long-term.”
But whenever the city tries to address certain issues — decreasing air pollution to lessen the impacts of winter inversions or adapting to changes in snow- pack that limit available water supplies, for example — it also is addressing climate change, he said.
“At the local level, for us, I can tell you this is a driving issue,” the mayor said. “If you look at what we need to do to address climate change, they really, for a place like Salt Lake City, are the very same things we need to do to have a livable, walk-able, desirable community.”
Becker, who is serving as president of the National League of Cities, which represents 19,000 municipalities, said climate change issues are being addressed locally and nationally. Cities are comparing notes to see what works and how best to support national and international efforts, he said.
“What you find among cities [is] climate change is not a debatable subject,” Becker said. “It is something we feel and experience and see happening in our communities all across the country. Climate change affects us in different regions in this country and obviously in different parts of the world in different ways.”
Being vocal about climate change and its impacts was a common theme of the panel, which was part of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. Conrad Anker, a mountaineer, climate activist and athlete sponsored by The North Face, encouraged athletes and snow enthusiasts to “realize there is a challenge and it’s OK to speak out about it.”
Asked whether outdoor industry chief executives have been outspoken enough, Becker said that ski resort managers have been “very direct” in their comments about climate change and how it’s affecting them.
“The other industries, on the other hand, people are either scared to talk about it, I’d say, or pretend to be more ideologically driven,” he said. “It’s sort of the conservative mantra of either denying climate change or saying it isn’t human-caused or that’s for scientists to decide.”
Metcalf urged people to make politicos and others aware of what they think about climate change and said the industry is trying to find the best ways to have its voice heard.
“As a climber,” he said, “my intelligence at times can make me a pessimist, my will makes me an optimist, and to these issues, as an industry, we have just begun to fight.”