Schendler Relays Cool Connections, Hot Ideas in Climate City

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, was the keynote speaker for a ClimateCon 2018 event held at Highland Brewing Company.

By Mark-Ellis Bennett

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, was the keynote speaker for a ClimateCon 2018 event held at the Wong Dynasty’s Highland Brewing Company. The evening of “cool connections & hot ideas in Climate City” was presented by The Collider.

Schendler is a writer and activist who has lectured everywhere from Harvard to Yale, and testified to Congress on the impacts of climate change.

He began his presentation with one of the last images captured by the Cassini spacecraft before it plunged to its demise on Saturn. A blue dot in the distance was its home planet — Earth. “When I saw this, I got this overwhelming feeling of am I doing anything meaningful with my life?” Schendler said the human aspiration is for our lives to be exemplary in some way, but we don’t need to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers like Philippe Petit to do it. 

“If there’s one thing we have in common, it’s the vision we have for the future where we can take care of our children and treat our neighbors well—the great hope of humanity. It doesn’t matter how conservative your friends are, we have these common goals,” he said. Schendler flashed a disturbing NOAA study image of the predicted soil moisture content in North America by the year 2100. “The question becomes how we address these kinds of problems in a scale that is meaningful.” He said he wasn’t going to talk much about climate science, but how to talk about it with others.

“In the old days, the unshaven, patchouli-scented environmentalists were the ones wringing their hands about climate change, but now it’s absolutely shocking who’s wringing their hands. It’s the most boring accountants and bankers in the world. Those are the guys who’ve said we’ve blown past two degrees Celsius, we’re headed toward four. The International Energy Agency? These are the dustiest, crustiest people ever. They said ‘we’re past four C,’ and then the World Bank also.” Schendler said if the planet warms by four degrees Celsius it would trigger feedback loops resulting in continued and accelerated warming.       

Corporations are applying little more than Band-Aids in response to what amounts to a catastrophic global problem that requires a globally coordinated response on a massive scale. Eliminating their carbon footprints helps, but it isn’t enough. So how can we affect change? “Find your power and use it. If you’re the corporate sustainability person at a business, what you end up doing if you really care about solving climate problems might not be what you thought you should be doing,” said Schendler before offering an example.

“One day I got a call in my office from Forest Ethics who asked if we used Kleenex facial tissue, and if we would consider banning it. ‘Kimberly-Clark which owns Kleenex is not practicing sustainable forestry,’ he was told. ‘They’re logging endangered forests, there’s no post-consumer waste in Kleenex, and they’re not talking to the environmental community.’” Along with 700 other companies Aspen Skiing banned Kleenex, switched to another brand, and the local press had a field day mocking Aspen Skiing. The headlines read, “Eat a Boogie, Save the Planet,” and “Kleenex, Nothing To Sneeze At.”

Kimberly-Clark’s senior vice president called Aspen Skiing’s CEO to try to work things out. Aspen Skiing is a small but well known privately held company, and Kimberly-Clark was a $30 billion company, bigger than half the nations in the world. Kimberly-Clark later changed how it sources fiber, becoming more sustainable. “This is what the military calls asymmetric warfare,” Schendler said. “This is a very small entity exerting disproportionate force. This is what I’m here to talk to you about. Where is your asymmetric war? Find your power and use it,” he said.

Another way is to run campaigns with progressive candidates to gain authority over the board of directors for utilities. Engage the media and fight voter suppression. It took ten years, but Aspen Skiing did it. “You could say this is exactly what corporations are doing, but too bad. What, only the bad guys get to play this game? Until we reform money and politics this is how you’ve got to fight.”

Schendler brought some of the most famous people in the outdoor industry to D.C. to lobby. “We get in the room with these congress people who are so board out of their minds because they otherwise only hear from oil and fossil lobbyists, it’s awesome. My point isn’t doom and gloom, it’s you have the opportunity to do something absolutely incredible and have fun doing it to be part of the solution. The solution exists, we have the policy tools, and the technology on the shelf today to solve this problem. We just have to deploy and implement them,” Schendler said.