(Aspen by Jonathan Fox on Flickr)
Last week I took a look at where the climate energy jobs were, but there are all sorts of climate jobs. This week I’ve got an interview with someone who’s got one of the them.
Hannah Berman is the senior manager for sustainability and philanthropy at Aspen Ski Company, known as SkiCo, that owns four skiing areas in Aspen, Colorado.
“Climate is an existential threat to our business,” Berman said. “We can see it through how much snow we have to make to get open on the same day every year… and we see that in how erratic storms are.”
While part of her job is greening the resorts’ operations, the approach the company has taken to climate is broader than that: "The thing we need to do to stay in business is work on climate at scale."
They’ve long been involved in Protect our Winters, a group of climate advocates from the skiing and snowboarding industry, and recently went to to DC to lobby for a bill that would encourage more electrical transmission in rural areas. They’ve also been active in state climate politics. I wanted to get a sense of why and how a business actively involves itself in energy and climate politics on the state level, something that utility, building and fossil fuel companies have been more adept at. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Why did you choose a transmission bill to lobby for in DC instead of the many other climate efforts you could work on behalf of it.
It’s [Protect Our Winters’] first foray into policy, into drafting legislation, and they want to pick a bipartisan issue that's relevant and timely. It would create community incentives for transmission development — and a lot of that happens in rural areas. And so it would bring communities to the table because they're getting a per mile incentive to host transmission. It’s not a glitzy bill, but it is a very bipartisan issue, especially because rural places are often conservative places and it pairs with other legislation that's out there on transmission.
Clean energy and transmission are the two things that need to stack together to help the grid become more green. The IRA gave a lot of resources to onboard clean energy projects. But now, the environmental community is finding that those clean energy projects can’t actually provide power to schools and homes and businesses, unless we have the transmission infrastructure to connect it into the grid. It’s pretty urgent to make all of the other legislation that has passed be able to accomplish what it set out to accomplish.
What have you done specifically in Colorado?
One of the most important things we've done in our region is work with Holy Cross Energy (TKB note: This is an co-op utility that provides energy for parts of the Rocky Mountains).
Back in the early 2000s, we were looking at our carbon footprint and the power coming to us was from dirty energy sources, even though we were doing Herculean efficiency projects. So the sustainability team at that time found two clean energy engineers to run for that utility board, which had historically been very much oil and gas dominated. They were actually the first two women to run and get elected. Every time elections came up, we would help turn out the vote and work on campaigns and get people to be involved.
Holy Cross went from having a goal of about 7% clean energy to a commitment to being 100% renewable by 2030. [TKB note: As of last year, Holy Cross energy sources were 50% renewable, but they still own a partial share of a coal plant, which represents most of the utility’s emissions.]
Then not only is the power we use to haul people up lifts or have lights in our hotels, clean energy, but Vail Resorts is on the same grid. My house is on the same grid, our local schools are getting that clean energy as well.
We will often will work with groups like Conservation Colorado, to push for policy at the state level. So some of that includes clean vehicle bills, environmental justice bills, including clean water, which is a big issue in our region, particularly the Latino community here.
What are the differences between working on these state policy and elections versus the federal lobbying?
I think at the federal level, there's a lot of desire to help rural communities, but perhaps not as much connection. So to be able to come [to D.C.] on behalf of the 4000 employees we have in a rural place, its important to bring that perspective to the table because we don't necessarily get as much airtime in D.C. as we might at the state level.
[At the state level] frequency is a big one. We can talk to the folks who are local representatives or see them more often. When we were in DC, we packed in dozens of meetings because you're only there every once in a while versus being able to go to Denver not infrequently during the year.
I have to imagine that some of your resort guests have significant financial and business interests in oil and gas. Have you ever gotten any pushback about your company being so active in climate politics?
We regularly get flamed on Instagram, and we have decided not to worry about it. And here's an interesting anecdote that gets at what you're talking about - we were looking at congressional contribution data, and the Kemmerer family, which owns Jackson Hole ski resort, was one of the largest contributors to Lauren Boebert’s campaign - that's a representative who has not been friendly to climate policy. And to us, it seems like your own business interest would align with supporting candidates who are friendly to climate action - and that stands for guests as well. So if you want us to “stick to skiing”, which is a phrase we hear a lot, we need to be able to advocate for climate policy.
We've been so grateful to be privately owned that by a family who is progressive and cares about climate, and we can focus on the long term because they're not trying to turn quarterly profits to show their shareholders. They're trying to build a responsible company and extend its value their grandchildren and that is a huge privilege at working at Aspen Skiing Company.
[TKB note: SkiCo is not exactly a small family business - it’s owned by the Crown family, billionaire investors and philanthropists from Chicago, whose own prolific campaign donations in past several cycles have covered a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal Democrats — from Joe Manchin to John Fetterman, and indeed a PAC financing advertising against Boebert.
What is it the difference for you between a traditional sustainability director at a company versus really getting externally involved in policy, elections?
Environmental stewardship is a good business management decision. It sometimes will save you money, it will sometimes cost more money. We see most sustainability departments focusing inwardly, on your plastics, on your energy use. Businesses should do that, we do that, but that doesn't solve climate.
Every ski area could be net-zero tomorrow, but that doesn't impact climate, policy impacts climate and implementation and deployment of clean energy. So if businesses are saying they want to impact climate, they need to be able to leverage their influence to tackle it at that systemic level versus just focusing inwardly.
And why do you think they they don't?
I think people can be nervous about losing conservative customers. But we work with a couple other brands, like Ben and Jerry's, who have found that our most controversial campaign years have also been our most profitable. And we're not saying that's directly correlated, but hopefully that helps people assuage some worries that businesses may have about losing conservative customers.
Also, a bigger idea is that skiing doesn't matter in the long run. I would be bummed if it goes away, a whole bunch of people would be, but what's more important is if people are not experiencing wildfires, or flooding or having to migrate from their home communities. Having businesses being able to recognize that that is the bigger and more important picture would be an important step.
Do you have any suggestions or tips for people who have don't have quote unquote climate jobs, but you know are interested in doing similar things in their own place of work?
I think it is so important to be an advocate wherever you are, and make your job a climate job, no matter what the title is. A good example is our director of purchasing who is a climate hawk. She said, yeah, we had to buy new trucks, so I bought all electric ones because we're a sustainable company. Whereas historically, we'd have to think of an idea, then we'd have to convince purchasing to get that more expensive product. But if you're in procurement, if you can buy more sustainable products. If you're in marketing, you can leverage your brand's voice to educate people about meaningful climate action. If you're in finance, you can help approve those projects.