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Climate Change

Winter Athletes Call for Action on Climate Change

WASHINGTON, Apr 10 2013 (IPS) - After another winter of erratic and disappointing snowfall, 75 of the U.S.’s top professional winter athletes are calling on President Barack Obama to take stronger measures to curb climate change.

In a letter released Tuesday, the athletes, who included five Olympic medallists, as well as a half a dozen world champions in skiing and other winter sports, noted that the 12-billion-dollar-a-year U.S. winter tourism industry has already been hard hit by the decline in snowfall and the steady rise in average winter temperatures that most climate scientists attribute to global warming.

Among other actions, the group, organised by a six-year-old, 50,000-member non-profit organisation called “Protect Our Winters” (POW), is calling on Obama to issue tough new regulations on U.S. power plants, the largest source of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

It also urged Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline -the biggest current focus of activist efforts to fight climate change – that, if approved, would pump oil produced from Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

“Mr. President, it’s time to force our transition to clean energy, (and) these are the first big steps and we need your leadership,” according to the letter, which will be delivered personally to Obama Thursday when POW founder and snow-boarder Jeremy Jones will be honoured at a White House ceremony along with other non-governmental community activists.

“For real change to happen, it needs to happen at the White House and on Capitol Hill,” Jones said in a teleconference that featured four other winter sports champions, including Olympic silver medallist and four-time X games gold medallist snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, and world free-skiing champions Kit Deslauriers and Ingrid Backstrom.

Jones added that the mobilisation of all of the athletes in support of climate change activism was also aimed at younger sports enthusiasts who, as consumers, could exert pressure on sporting-goods companies to conduct their business in a more environmentally responsible fashion.

“One message we give to (youth), is, ‘hey, when you do make a purchase, really do research on what the company stands for,’” he said.

With The North Face apparel company, POW has created the Alliance for Climate Education which since 2011 has sent its star athletes to 36 high schools to spread the word to some 15,000 students.

The athletes’ action comes amidst an apparent resurgence in public concern about climate change after a decade in which the issue received relatively little attention.

While the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed dominated the public agenda in the early part of the decade, the 2008 financial crisis and its impact on the economy effectively put environmental issues on the back burner.

Meanwhile, the effective takeover of the Republican Party by so-called “climate sceptics”, as well as continued heavy lobbying by the powerful coal, oil and gas industries, effectively put paid to any prospects that Obama could get major reform legislation through Congress.

In his latest State of the Union address, Obama, who had been relatively quiet about climate change during his first term, said he would take stronger action in his second term.

He warned that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations (from climate change), I will.” Acting through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), his administration subsequently set tougher-than-expected energy-efficiency standards for automobiles and future power plants.

The weather itself, especially extreme events, such as Hurricane Sandy that inundated lower Manhattan and much of the New Jersey coastline last fall, appears to have both helped reverse the decline in public concern about the effects of climate change and encouraged Obama to take a more aggressive stance.

Indeed, in his second Inaugural Address, Obama referred to the “devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms” – all of which have gained significant attention over the past couple of years in the news media which, unlike the president, however, generally refrained from attributing them to climate change.

While those extreme events have gained the headlines, the impact of warming on the more remote and sparsely populated mountain regions and communities of the country – and specifically the generally lighter or more inconsistent snowfall — has received much less attention.

POW last year teamed up with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to produce a 33-page study on this question, entitled “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States”.

Increasingly, it noted, “there have been all-or-nothing winters – blizzards in some places, only a dusting all season-long in others.”

“For those whose livelihood depends upon a predictable winter season, such unpredictability and lack of snow can translate into a precipitous fall in revenue, an early economic indicator of what climate change looks like,” according to the report, which found that 212,000 jobs were either directly or indirectly supported by the winter tourism industry nationwide.

Among other conclusions, it found winter resort communities, such as Aspen, Colorado, and Squaw Valley, California, increasingly threatened by the changing climate patterns, especially the increasingly later onset of substantial snowfall and the earlier melt-off of the snowpack.

In the 2011-12 winter, about half of all ski areas opened late and closed early, resulting in serious losses in revenue and employment.

Deslauriers, who is famous for climbing the world’s highest mountains in order to ski down them, noted major changes around her community in the Grand Teton Mountains, a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains, in Wyoming.

“We just have a few small pieces of glaciers left, and the rain is lasting longer at lower elevations, so our snowpack is melting faster,” she said.

On a recent trip to the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, she added, Native American elders had told her about the shortening of their winters, too.

Indeed, these trends – the shortening of winter seasons and the retreat of glaciers at high elevations – are not confined to North America. In the Andes of South America and Tanzania’s Mt. Kilamanjaro, where snowpack and glaciers are a vital source of freshwater, much larger populations are threatened by global warming.

“There’s still time for the winter sports world to stand together,” said Deslauriers.

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