What a luxury ski resort is doing to solve climate change


I'm sitting in the lobby of the Little Nell with Auden Schendler. This is a fancy pants, 92-room spa and resort in Aspen that routinely hosts world leaders and celebrities in rooms that cost upwards of $760 a night. The Nell is a major energy spender — in 2008, it used 25,556 MMBTU of natural gas and 3,269,967kWh of electricity, generating 4,245 tons of CO2 emissions (the average house generates about 17,000 lbs). Aspen is an entire town full of buildings like the Nell; in addition to the hotels and shops, the luxury ski town hosts four mountains full of energy-sucking ski lifts, snowmaking machines, snowcats, and heated buses on constant rotation that take people from one part of town to another. Add to that the transportation costs to and from the resort of the 1.36 million skiers and 34,000 employees that come here every ski season, and you've got what seems like a major environment killer.

But if you ask Schendler, he'll tell you that the Little Nell is a prime hub for fighting climate change.

Schendler — a tall, mountain-man type wearing big boots and a puffy jacket — is the Sustainability Director of the Aspen Skiing Company. What this means is that he has the seemingly absurd task of transforming the entire energy-sucking, luxury-soaked resort into a tool to fight climate change. Earlier this year, Schendler authored a book called Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution — a fun-to-read motivator that very clearly outlines how big, influential corporations can leverage their power to lead the fight against climate change. Schendler used to be a regular grassroots "enviro guy"; but now that he's a bigwig exec at a big corporation, he's even more hell bent on solving the climate problem. We chatted for about an hour at the Nell's restaurant last week, and here's what he said:

The question: "How do you even justify what you're doing?" comes up all the time. I'm sorry, you're the sustainability guy at the ski resort? You care about climate change? Why don't you shut down the resort? Aspen flies people in from all over the world. If you look at carbon footprint, that's 27,000 tons of CO2 a year. For your day of skiing, it's about 30-40 lbs of CO2 for one day. Per skiier! Snowmaking uses huge energy. Shut down!

The problem with that logic is, it's very hard to draw the line. Ok, no skiing. No flying? Ok, no flying because it's worse than skiing. No vehicles. Can't ride the bus. Can you stay in a hotel? Not a five star hotel. Can you stay in a motel 6? Pretty lavish compared to say, Bangladesh. It becomes impossible to say what's okay that's not.

It's wasteful, I see it. But The Nell is a five star hotel. The whole concept is wasteful. And unless we say we're gonna change the whole product, we're stuck. Skiing is absurd on its face. But we have to assume that the business itself is acceptable because presumably, no matter how radical we are as environmentalists, the community needs a base of business. There's value to an economy and people having meaningful jobs that pay well. Otherwise to solve climate you'd have to shut the world down and go back to medieval times.

We've done huge energy retrofits in this hotel. Solar panels on the roof, LED lights in all the rooms, the garage… all this cool stuff. If you look at the menu here, it's all local food, farmed locally. We certify the buildings to LEED standards. Every guest who stays at the Nell has $2 deducted from their bill and that goes to open space preservation. Some of the lifts have maps on them — it's cool, it keeps people from littering, and we don't have to print as many. Those are environmental solutions in the old way, but they also reach a captive audience with climate messages.

But if you look at the impact of those emissions reductions in the scope of the world, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I make the decision not to fly. That's not gonna stop the plane. The plane's still flying. Even if the ski industry eliminated all our emissions, we're still out of business by 2050 or 2100 because of the climate.

So what do you do? You gotta fix the whole system. You have to fix the economy and the energy economy so that the carbon footprint is much less. We have to fix the problem of transportation. The best thing to do would be to have a carbon tax. You can't just say, okay no pool. What you can do is create the conditions where it doesn't make sense to have that pool or to fly. A carbon tax taxes energy, so all the energy used is more expensive. you just have to decide whether to pay more or not. Right now it costs $2000 a year to heat that pool. Maybe if it cost $20,000, things would start to change.

I always get in the same arguments with the hard core enviro community. They want me to do rinky dink stuff like bamboo foors and recycling, and I tell them it doesn't matter, that their personal actions don't matter because the problem's too big. That pisses people off — they get mad at me and say every little bit helps. But every little bit doesn't help because the problem's too big. If everyone who was so inclined did every little thing from the Prius to the bulb, we still wouldn't solve this problem. It's gotta be a global mandate, not a voluntary thing. My day is full of people getting furious at me. Last week I had to send the FBI some death threats I was getting about calling the governor of Utah willfully ignorant on climate. This is war. This is a combat situation. and it's gonna hurt people the way wars hurt people. I like to say, we're gonna have to break things and hurt people to make this happen. Just being straightorward and truthful about these things instead of glossing and deluding people is incredibly valuable.

If Aspen can be anything, it can be a shining city on a hill. There's a lot of energy being wasted at the Nell, but it's also a power center. The people at this hotel are the people who can save the world. Jeffrey Sachs said, if the top 5% of the wealthiest people in the world gave 4% of their income every year, you'd end global poverty. Those people are right here! They're in this hotel! I'm exactly where I need to be. In the past two months, our CEO has been to DC twice to lobby on climate change. We have the tax resources and the corporate resources — if we can't demonstrate that this problem is solvable, then no one can do it. We're a lab for addressing climate change; we can try stuff and fail and be public about those failures and successes in a way that has a ripple effect.

What if I said, you know what, I can't justify being here at this five star hotel. I'm gonna go to the peace corps and work on putting photovoltaic installations in Samoa. What have I done? I've essentially made myself powerless. I've changed this from being about climate to being about me personally. The second this becomes about you or me, we reach a point where we're fully incapable of solving a problem. It's naive to just say, our impact is terrible, we're gonna shut down. A ski resort operated appropriately is one of the sustianable conrnerstones of this community. Are we there yet? No, but we'll get there.

Images: Jeremy Swanson (top), Paul Morrison (thumbnail), courtesy of the Aspen Skiing Company