How 50 Million Outdoor Enthusiasts Can Tip Scales on Climate Action
There are 50 million people in the US that climb, ski, snowboard, trail run, mountain bike and fish, whether for exercise, to play, or to connect with friends and family. In spring 2020, when so many things in our lives came to a screeching halt, the number of people spending time on outdoor hobbies skyrocketed. People recreate outdoors to escape the stresses of life -- in this case a pandemic and all that came along with it. At a time when some many things were off limits, outdoor activities were still available and not only felt safe, but were. Stores couldn't keep bicycles and camping gear on the shelves, and once beaches and national parks opened -- they filled with people eager for outdoor adventure.
"These 50 million people are citizens of a borderless state -- the Outdoor State -- as coined by Protect Our Winters (POW)..."
This massive segment of the population is larger than the number of people in California and cuts across state lines, political parties and demographics. It's made up of people who are personally invested in climate, and who notice changes in climate firsthand. These 50 million people are citizens of a borderless state -- the Outdoor State -- as coined by Protect Our Winters (POW), the non-profit I founded in 2007. I am a proud citizen of the Outdoor State. Maybe you are, too.
WW0: Protecting Our Winters, Earth Day, April 22, 2021.
As a professional snowboarder and the owner of Jones Snowboards, my lifestyle and livelihood -- from where I live to paying my mortgage -- is completely reliant on a stable climate with consistent, dependable snowpack. Not only does this snowpack allow me to ride where I live in California's Sierra Mountains throughout the winter, it also provides water and mitigates wildfire risk in the summer.
"A 2019 research project spearheaded by POW ... found that while the Outdoor State overwhelmingly understands that climate change is caused by humans, it does not necessarily skew liberal."
My passion for the outdoors and snowsports started nearly 40 years ago, riding and skiing with my family in Vermont each winter. Today, I spend every free moment I have with my wife and kids in the mountains. It is where we connect with each other, find balance, and grow.
My family is not alone in finding a sense of peace in the mountains. A 2019 research project spearheaded by POW to understand what motivates outdoor enthusiasts on climate, found the same thing. This research found that while the Outdoor State overwhelmingly understands that climate change is caused by humans, it does not necessarily skew liberal. On the political spectrum, this group of 50 million is a fairly close reflection of the country as a whole.
"...we were basically testing the hypothesis that through a shared love of sports and the outdoors, we could inspire people to become climate advocates or shift long-held views on climate policy."
Informed by research, both scientific and behavioral, POW educates outdoor enthusiasts on the science-backed facts of what is happening to climate, then equips them with the tools they need to take action on a systemic level. The POW's Science Alliance is made up of leading hydrologists, glaciologists and climate scientists, and incorporates behavioral studies on how to best reach people when it comes to climate.
POW is able to reach communities that traditional climate organizations can't through personal connections and meeting people where they're at -- in our case, outdoors. We can open up dialogue in the most natural way through the treasured places, experiences and traditions we have in common. Through our shared passion for the outdoors, we can often guide people, who range from professional athletes and major outdoor brand executives to those who more casually spend time outdoors -- and have them join us on our climate advocacy journey.
"The growing outdoor recreation economy sustains 7.6 million jobs nationwide ... Americans spend $887 billion annually recreating outside, representing more than 2.2% of total GDP."
This strategy is how I approached the people I had the pleasure of meeting in the documentary Purple Mountains (2020). In the film, we went into Nevada (a swing state) to connect with others whose lifestyles are centered around snow or outdoor sports. The people I met with were not fully on board with climate action. With the film, we were basically testing the hypothesis that through a shared love of sports and the outdoors, we could inspire people to become climate advocates or shift long-held views on climate policy.
Official Trailer: Purple Mountains, September 8, 2020
But, lifestyle isn't the only thing driving these people's interest in climate. Livelihoods coast-to-coast are also driven by a stable climate. The growing outdoor recreation economy sustains 7.6 million jobs nationwide. According to the Outdoor Industry Alliance's 2018 analysis, Americans spend $887 billion annually recreating outside, representing more than 2.2% of total GDP. The Outdoor State helps to drive a segment of the US economy that is bigger than the fossil fuel and mining industries, even combined.
"At POW, when we go to Capitol Hill, we meet with representatives on both sides of the aisle."
This growing segment of the economy and this outdoor way of life, shared by millions of people, are fully dependent on climate. Loss of snowpack leads to shorter winters and longer wildfire seasons, while the development of public lands for fossil fuel extraction, which is the source of more than 20% of US emissions, puts all of the above at risk.\
A shared love of the outdoors truly can bring people together and it can motivate them to act -- whether it is a reluctant friend, neighbor, or even a member of Congress. At POW, when we go to Capitol Hill, we meet with representatives on both sides of the aisle. With most of them, we watch their eyes light up as they talk about hiking with their families, their annual ski trips, or teaching their children how to rock climb. But, where a shared love of the outdoors doesn't motivate a particular representative, we often breakthrough by pointing directly to jobs in their state or district that are at risk due to climate change.
While we educate people that their lifestyles and livelihoods are under attack, not to mention the future of life on our planet, we introduce the necessary action: that the only way to make meaningful reductions in CO2 is through systemic change. And to do this we need policy change, which requires voters to show up. Citizens of the Outdoor State and the entire US, for that matter, need to understand how much their vote matters. And while many people, like me, go outdoors to disconnect -- the reality is that we must reconnect if we are going to protect outdoor recreation from its biggest threat -- climate change.
As we embark on this new chapter in climate action, there are 50 million people who make up the Outdoor State -- who can lace up their boots and play a meaningful role in protecting the places we love. It has to be this way. It bears repeating: Our lifestyles and our livelihoods depend on it.