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Melting icebergs in front of Paris's Pantheon; Photograph by Sara Fox

Climate Change Could Melt the $60 Billion Snow Sports Industry. Can COP21 Make a Difference?

Winter sports is a $60 billion industry that props up 900,000 U.S. jobs, but because of climate change it could be melting away before our eyes. Since the 1960s the Northern Hemisphere has lost nearly a million miles of spring snow cover and that trend shows no signs of stopping.

“Even if we stopped everything right now the warming continues for half a century, maybe more,” says Porter Fox, author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. “We are trying to get ahead of that ball and say the trends you are seeing are only going to get worse.”

If the warming trend continues unabated and the western part of the country loses between 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100, as predicted, it will reduce the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegate skiing to the top quarter of Aspen Mountain.

The collapse of the ski industry could kill entire local and regional economies across the West and in New England.

In response, this past October, 50 pro athletes, 90 ski resorts, and just about every other key player in the snow sports industry wrote a letter of support to President Obama as he prepared for COP21, the world climate summit happening now in Paris. The organization behind the letter, Protect Our Winters (POW), is the leading voice on climate change in the winter sports industry.

“We knew that Obama’s team was working hard on their climate proposal early on, and most likely it would be aggressive, so we decided that our most effective lever would be to show them our support—from our $63 billion industry, resorts, and pro athletes—to broker the strongest deal they could in Paris,” says POW director Chris Steinkamp. Steinkamp learned to ski when he was five years old at the local hill in the Catskills—a hill that’s no longer skiable because there isn’t enough snow.

“I want my kids to have that same access and experience, and that’s what’s driving me with POW,” he says.

#UniteForPOW is POW’s platform for snow lovers across the globe to speak up during the 12-day conference on climate change, encouraging anyone to post a video explaining the kind of world they hope their kids will inherit.

Clad in a fur-lined trapper hat, with her long blonde hair flowing past her shoulders, Olympian snowboarder Kjersti Buaas tells #UniteForPOW followers that happiness for her is access to natural resources. She hopes that future generations will be able to shred the same outdoor playgrounds that she has.

POW founder, pro snowboarder, and past Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year Jeremy Jones thinks “COP21 could be the tipping point we’ve all been working so hard for since Copenhagen. I’m hopeful, because the science is clear, the solutions are real, and the global community is demanding real action from our world leaders now.”

Jones and Steinkamp began bringing their concerns to Washington a few years ago, with backup from pro athletes and big names from the ski industry. In August Steinkamp and a small group of associates were invited to Obama’s announcement of the Clean Power Plan and were among the few to hear the president discuss details of the plan. In the months after, POW mobilized leading voices in the snow sports industry to persuade governors to support the plan. Yet just this week, the House killed that plan. Jones and Steinkamp are still optimistic, shifting their focus on the 2016 elections.

“The decision was largely symbolic, so I’m not worried about it in the short term,” says Jones. “But it does signal this inertia in Washington about progress on climate. There is still a large number of lawmakers in D.C. [who] are fighting against us. And this vote was tough to see because they voted against something that the majority of the U.S. citizens want—they’re obviously not looking out for what we want. It’s clear that we’ll have to focus our efforts on trying to get our leadership to listen to this because its very real. If they choose not to listen to constituents, we’ll work to get someone in that job who does.”

Steinkamp agrees. “Its just clear that some of our elected officials aren’t listening,” he says. “We’re going to spend 2016 trying to change that or make sure that the outdoor sports community turns out and votes for those candidates that do want clean energy innovation and do listen to their constituents.”

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The Eiffel Tower lit green for COP21; Photograph by Sara Fox

On Monday, Olympian snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, also a past Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year, will be joined by other professional riders to speak at the summit, having seen climate change firsthand on the mountain.

“As a director and member of the POW Riders Alliance, I’m an example of how POW is empowering athletes with influence to step up into leadership roles,” Bleiler says. “Because when we are empowered to use our voice, stand up for what we believe in, and take action on climate change, we role model that behavior to the younger generation of environmental activists, which creates a social movement. And social movements are what have helped achieve civil rights legislation, labor protections, women’s voting rights, and, most recently, marriage equality.”

Bleiler will be one of a hundred leaders gathering for the Sustainable Innovation in Sport forum at the national stadium of France on December 7, addressing COP21 attendees and expressing her concerns for shortened winters and, ultimately, the future of winter sports. The goal? To bring attention to the big issue of no snow, unfamiliar territory for many politicians.

“We have a huge community of individuals who we’re mobilizing continually on issues,” says Steinkamp. “We give them those opportunities to take policy actions. But we need to make it interesting and fun at the same time. Advocacy shouldn’t be intimidating or something that people don’t want to do because that defeats the purpose of our democratic system. We need to change that perception.”