Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What snow machines can tell us about the 21st century

Studies conducted by University of Colorado snow scientist Mark Williams and his colleagues predict that, if we continue to pollute the way we do now, skiing will be confined to the top quarter of Aspen Mountain in average years by the end of the century. Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort will have no snowpack whatsoever. The Great Melt will hit maritime ski resorts in the Cascades and Sierra even sooner. A study in New England found that only four of the region’s 14 major ski resorts will still be profitable by 2100 — if they even survive that long.
 -- "As the climate warms, skiers can kiss their Aspen goodbye"

Madeleine Thomas over at Grist has an article up with the catchy title "In the ski business, there are no climate deniers." To the optimistic mind, this might seem a herald of good things to come, as climate change's effects impact people and businesses so directly and forcefully that it's no longer practicable not to take into account. And so it may come to pass. But lurking in the latter paragraphs of the piece is a stark warning that the actions taken in response to that reality may not be what climate activists hope:
Many resorts across California, normally a Mecca for powder hounds, are being left with no option but to invest in snow-making equipment in order to stay afloat during the winter months — as much as $8 million worth within the last three years at larger resorts like Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. But making snow is not without its costs: At resorts like Big Bear Lake, snowmaking equipment can suck up to 7,000 gallons of water from the lake per minute, at a whopping $3,000 per hour.
Economic analyses of the costs of climate change typically assume rational adaptation -- sacrificing places and aspects of are way of life when sustaining them becomes expensive or impracticable. But the opposite reaction is all too plausible -- expending resources lavishly to sustain one's existing patterns of behavior.

We would like a ski resort owner to hasten to DC a purchase a piece of a Congressperson in the service of fighting climate change. But what they are doing in practice is buying snow machines. Just as the people feeling the heat in New Delhi are buying air conditioning. And not just there, of course, but all over the globe:

China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020. Consider this: The number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in China in 2010 alone. And it is projected that the number of air-conditioned vehicles in China will reach 100 million in 2015, having more than doubled in just five years.
As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.
Beyond air conditioning or snow machines, desalinization of sea water, farmed fish, and vertical farming are all examples of energy-intensive "adaptation" that may make the long-term problem worse. This is something we are going to see a lot of in the come years, so we will need a name for it. You might call it local energy-intensive resistance (LEIR.)

I don't begrudge an Indian family a cool place to sleep or, indeed, a ski resort owner their snow, which is, after all, their livelihood. But from the perspective of the larger civilization, these energy- and carbon-intensive solutions are maladaptive, not adaptive. They exacerbate climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and in exchange temporarily mitigate the harm caused by those emissions. They solve the problem of over-exploitation of the natural world by exploiting it harder.

Since LEIRs are available only to the comparably well-off, they additionally have the pernicious effect of weakening solidarity in confronting a crisis that threatens both rich and poor. The ski resort owner with his snow machine is not likely to become a climate warrior, even though the cost of climate change is real and immediate to him. He has made a separate peace.