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No skiing

07/31/07 5:55AM By Allen Gilbert

(HOST) The closing of a ski resort in the French Alps caught commentator Allen Gilbert’s attention recently, leading him to wonder - could it happen here?

(GILBERT) Sometimes you follow an issue and you think it's important, but others don't seem to agree. Then there's a news story that casts the issue in a different light, and you think, this is bound to get through to everyone.

I had that sense recently when I saw a news story about a town in the French Alps that's decided to close its ski area because of a lack of snow. This was a major decision for the town. Skiing has been the town's economic lifeline. But winters there have gotten warmer, and there's not much snow any more. Global climate change, townspeople decided, is real, and it's here to stay.

Scientists say that locales in the 3,000-5,000 foot elevation range will be the ones most affected by climate change this century. And apparently the Alps are particularly sensitive to the change. Closings of more ski areas in France, Germany, and Austria are expected. A European company that operates a series of resorts in mid-altitude areas was recently placed in bankruptcy.

The elevation range caught my eye. That's the altitude of Vermont ski areas. Are they at risk, too?

Yes, and U.S. scientists had said as much in a report released a few weeks before the French ski resort story. The report was issued just as the Vermont Legislature returned to Montpelier to try to override two gubernatorial vetoes. One of those vetoes was of a climate change bill. The report was cited at a Statehouse press conference to draw more attention to the climate change issue. The report was from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected group of scientists who speak out on public issues.

I remember reading of the report, but somehow it got lost in the politics over the vetoes. So I found a copy on the Web, and sure enough, there's a section on the threat that global warming poses to Vermont's winter sports industry.

With no changes to current emissions levels, only western Maine is projected to have a reliable ski season by the end of the century. Even under a scenario of reduced emissions, only "parts" of Vermont would retain a reliable season. Winters are expected to warm by 8 to 12 degrees; 5 to 8 degrees under the more favorable scenario.

I was reminded of a story that I'd read last year about the effects that global warming could have on the North American wine industry. California's vineyards would be harmed, but other locales might benefit - among them, southern Quebec and Vermont.

I remember chuckling at the time - Champlain Valley chardonnay on the shelves of local stores? But the story about the French town didn't make me chuckle - it struck me hard, and I said, "This is real. It's happening now." This French town is facing tough economic times.

It could be that we'll accept climate change as reality only when it hits our pocketbooks, as it has the French town. We humans are impressively adaptive, but the economic dislocation of a major industry such as winter sports can't be ignored. It's not just inconvenient anymore. It's a real threat that some people are feeling in their personal lives.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.
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