Dear EarthTalk: With the onset of global warming, how likely is it that ski resorts and skiing itself might soon become a thing of the past? — Mandy Billings, Provo, UT
Last winter’s low snow year and unseasonably warm temperatures across much of the American West meant a bad year for business for ski resorts, and also left many of us wondering whether skiing would even be possible in the warmer world we’re getting as we continue to pump out greenhouse gases.
“Our recent modeling suggests that under a high emissions scenario, skiing could be very limited to non-existent in parts of the country by the end of this century, particularly in lower elevations — such as the Northeast, Midwest and lower mountains around the West,” says Cameron Wobus, lead author on a 2017 study projecting climate change impacts on skiing across the U.S. “Things look better mid-century, so this dire future for skiing isn’t imminent — and things also look much better under a more aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation scenario, so this future also isn’t inevitable.”
According to Wobus’ research, ski resorts in the Pacific Northwest have the most to fear, with predicted losses of 80 percent or more of the ski season. Ski resorts in the Northeast also won’t fare well as we warm. The relatively good news is that the ski resorts in the intermountain West should face “less severe losses” due to their higher elevations.
The ski resorts themselves are doing what they can to try to reduce and offset their own emissions. To wit, Vail Resorts will power its 15 U.S.-based ski resorts with 100 percent wind energy beginning in 2020, and is well on its way to achieving its ambitious 2030 goal of “zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill and zero operating impact on forests and habitat.” Nearby, Aspen Skiing Company is big on solar, donates six figures annually to local non-profits working on climate mitigation and related issues, and lately has focused on firing up its customer base to encourage climate-friendly voting in Congress. Meanwhile, the list of ski resorts now deriving all of their power from on-site renewables (e.g., Berkshire East, Jiminy Peak, Squaw Valley, Wolf Peak, Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge) is growing every year.
Coordinating and facilitating much of this activity is the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), a trade group representing over 300 U.S-based ski area owners and operators. NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes initiative, launched in 2000, provides an overarching framework for ski areas on sustainability and enhanced environmental performance. Its Environmental Charter serves as a blueprint and inspiration for ski resorts looking to green their operations.
Another influential player is Protect Our Winters (POW), a non-profit founded in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones to mobilize the outdoor sports community against climate change. Its “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes” program, in which a professional skier or snowboarder leads an all-school assembly through a 45-minute multimedia presentation detailing the science behind climate change, how it’s affecting snow levels and what we can each do to become part of the solution, has been an especially effective way to get young people fired up about solving the climate crisis. The program has reached some 60,000 students since its inception in 2011.
Contacts: “Projected climate change impacts on skiing and snowmobiling: A case study of the United States,” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378016305556; Protect Our Winters, www.protectourwinters.org; NSAA Sustainable Slopes, www.nsaa.org/environment/sustainable-slopes.
Dear EarthTalk: I read the federal government’s recently released climate change report, and was surprised to learn that global warming is even being blamed for an increase in foodborne illness. What’s the connection? — Jeremy Brotherton, Camden, ME
Yes, the new federal climate report (the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”) paints a dire picture of our future — including compromised food safety — if we don’t rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the non-profit Stop Foodborne Illness (SFI), climate change is already starting to affect food safety as a result of increased bacterial adaptation to fast-changing environmental conditions brought on by warming surface temperatures. In essence, the bacteria that rules the world is getting better at adapting to new environments. The stronger the bacteria, the better it can do colonizing new territory — and making more of us sick. One side-effect of increased bacterial resistance is much more use of antibiotics by veterinarians, farmers and ranchers to keep animals healthy. But it’s a zero-sum game: The more antibiotics we use on ourselves and animals, the better bacteria get at developing resistance to them.
Additionally, global warming brings increased flooding, which spreads pathogens from misdirected waste streams across soils, including where children play and food crops grow. Meanwhile, warming-induced drought compromises overall soil health and brings new bacterial challenges to farmers and ranchers.
Another way global warming contributes to more foodborne illness is by increasing the incidence and severity of natural disasters where first responders may not prioritize food safety and many of the affected are left without power or running water that could help them sanitize food.
Likewise, agricultural experts worry that exaggerated “mycotoxin” growth in a warmer world could also contaminate food sources. “Mycotoxins are a group of highly toxic chemical substances that are produced by toxigenic molds that commonly grow on a number of crops,” reports SFI. High temperature, humidity and precipitation brought on by climate change can create optimal conditions for mold growth.
“At high doses, mycotoxins produce acute symptoms and deaths, and particular mycotoxins may possess carcinogenic, immunosuppressive, neurotoxic, estrogenic and teratogenic activity,” adds SFI. What’s scary is that we could already be ingesting these contaminants — and surely will be more so in the future — by eating inadvertently infected crops and/or meat derived from livestock raised on contaminated feed.
And then there’s “zoonosis,” the transmittal of diseases from pets and livestock to people through direct contact with infected animals, meat or wastes. Climate change will increase the susceptibility of animals to disease, says SFI, thus increasing the likelihood of our contracting illnesses from animals.
While we can try our best to eat responsibly grown foods and stay out of the way of potentially infected animals, the solution to global warming-induced increases in foodborne illness is to stop emitting greenhouse gases. But as we are finding, that’s much more easily said than done.
Dear EarthTalk: Does the Scott brand’s “tube-free” toilet paper really save much paper or is it just another form of corporate greenwashing? — Matt Potamkin, Milwaukee, WI
Ditching the cardboard tube in the middle of the toilet paper roll is definitely a step in the right direction for Scott, the paper company owned by multinational conglomerate Kimberly-Clark, as it tries to do what it can for the planet while still providing the products its customers have come to depend on.
According to Scott, Americans currently discard some 17 billion cardboard toilet paper tubes every year — enough to fill the Empire State Building twice over. Meanwhile, RecycleBank, a company that works with municipalities to reward consumers for increasing recycling, reports that most of these cardboard tubes — some 160 million pounds worth every year — end up in landfills even though they could easily be recycled (or even turned into compost if thrown into the yard waste bin instead of the regular trash).
It is ironic that Scott, the company that first introduced the cardboard core to toilet paper rolls back in 1890, is the first modern-day manufacturer to go without it. But don’t worry about toilet paper tubes going away completely anytime soon. Scott is the only major manufacturer offering a tube-free option right now, and the vast majority of its own toilet paper sales are for those with the trusty old tube.
As far as environmental advocates are concerned, tube-free is better than not, but critics say Scott could do a lot better. “When they come out with getting rid of the tube, the logical thing to say is, ‘Is that the best that they could do?’ No, it’s not,” says Allen Hershkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “But I wouldn’t label this greenwashing. I’d say this is a helpful initiative.”
For its part, Scott has been hesitant to add recycled content to its toilet papers due to compromised quality and softness. “We are still researching alternative fibers and evaluating them based on quality and availability for potential use in the future,” says Scott’s brand manager Jared Mackrory. “Right now we’re making a difference where we can.”
Beyond losing the tube, Scott has begun using fibers certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit wood, paper and forest products certification entity. And the company has pledged to replace half of all of its wood fiber with more sustainable alternatives by 2025.
In the meantime, it’s up to each and every one of us to do our part to reduce our use of toilet paper. One quick and easy way to stop wasting squares would be to install a Control-n-Roll on your toilet paper holder. This nifty reusable foam insert costs $4.99 for a two-pack, and its manufacturer claims it can cut your toilet paper use by 50 percent by serving as a brake on the roll when you stop pulling.
An even better way to reduce toilet paper use is by installing a bidet, which uses a jet of water to clean your nether regions so you can save the toilet paper for patting yourself dry. Blue Bidet gets high marks for ease-of-installation and high-quality workmanship despite being affordable.