Stoking interest in climate change through science, place, and snowboarding movies

By Thomas Timberlake, Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship

About a month ago, I went to a showing of the movie “Ode to Muir: The High Sierra” – part snowboard movie, part adventure film, and part advocacy piece. In the movie, Jeremy Jones and Elena Hight, the professional snowboarder protagonists of the film, embark on an 8-day trek through the Sierra Nevada in the John Muir Wilderness. As the title suggests, the film uses the writing of John Muir to provide narrative cover for clips of splitboard travel through the mountains and descents of steep slopes. Reinterpreting Muir’s ideas in the present day yields the film’s underlying message about the impacts that climate change is having and will continue to have on treasured landscapes. In addition to his snowboarding career, Jones founded the organization, Protect Our Winters, to target climate advocacy to the winter sports community. The movie, which premiered in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, wraps in messaging from this organization with the intent of motivating viewers to vote. Cultural moments, like this movie, offer opportunities for climate scientists to link their work to topics that excite people.

Linking climate science to outdoor recreation would leverage a growing interest amongst the outdoor recreation community in speaking up for conservation. The 2016 presidential election drummed up attentiveness to policy decisions pertaining to public lands. In particular, recreationists have strongly opposed plans from the Trump administration to reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument, which was established in the last days of the Obama administration following a multi-year collaborative process. This heightened advocacy reflects a recognition of the benefits that public lands provide society, a topic covered in Ode to Muir. However, an emerging debate questions the role for the infectious energy generated by adventure sports in present-day conservation. In an op-ed titled “Your stoke won’t save us,” published in High Country News, Ethan Linck questions the extent to which passion amongst recreationists alone can yield lasting conservation outcomes that benefit the ecosystems in which people play. Responses followed. For example, in an opinion piece in the same publication, Louis Geltman argues that stoke drives people to take action, the necessary substance for beneficial outcomes.

Ode to Muir goes beyond relying solely on stoke to motivate action. Sure, there are the clips that induce cheers from the rowdier members of the in-theater audience. But the movie’s rhetoric is more complex than a simple request of the viewer along the lines of “You’re stoked – now go and vote.” It builds its argument by incorporating the philosophy of John Muir and scientific evidence describing climate change’s impacts. Furthermore, the movie focuses on a particular iconic place. In his op-ed on stoke’s limitations, Linck argues that leveraging people’s attachment to specific places can go a long way to address the deficiencies of stoke alone. The lesson here is that adventurer-advocates should build layered arguments that supplement stoke with a heavy dose of place, some science, and perhaps a few references to the intellectual greats of the past.

Scientists too could learn from the stoke-as-savior debate and seek out opportunities to leverage people’s stoke for outdoor recreation in their efforts to describe the impacts of climate change. Climate scientists are increasingly speaking up following the hurricanes and wildfires; in addition, we’re hearing from these experts following releases of government climate reports. These efforts are laudable and should continue, but what about meeting people where they are? Sports like skiing get people “stoked.” Scientists can connect to these passion in their efforts to reach the public. Their messages can emphasize the need to reduce emissions – or mitigate climate change – in order to maintain people’s ability to go ski or chase fun through other activities. There’s also an opportunity to share how climate change is affecting the ecosystems that support many treasured recreational activities and the opportunities to adapt to these impacts.

Public lands concurrently support a multitude of different values, each with different exposures to climate change. Many of these impacts are highlighted in a series of vulnerability assessment reports that the Forest Service has produced summarizing how climate change is impacting public lands. This fact isn’t lost on the creators of Ode to Muir who apply their messaging about climate change’s impacts across several different features of the landscape. Over images of the whitebark pine, Jones narrates how climate change threatens this species and has contributed to recent mass mortality events affecting forests of all species in California. In fact, maintaining whitebark pine in light of climate change represents a key initiative for the U.S. Forest Service and its adaptation efforts. Similarly, the movie includes several shots of its protagonists collecting water from melting snow. Not only do these shots offer an opportunity for subtle product placement benefitting the movie’s drinkware sponsor and upscale cooler giant, Yeti, but these shots provide a foray into a discussion of how snowpack in the Sierra Nevada provides nearly 60 percent of California’s water and how climate change threatens the natural water storage provided by snowpack. Decreases in snowpack hurt snowboarding expeditions in the wilderness of the high Sierra; more importantly, losing the snowpack has reverberating impacts for urban water users and agricultural producers alike. Perhaps most apparent in the film are the impacts of climate change on winter recreation, which Jones sums up with the concept of “last descents.” This idea refers to the fact that a lack of snow in the future may preclude future descents of many of the peaks featured in the film.

As a student of climate change adaptation and public land management, I appreciate seeing the topics that I spend my time reading and writing about getting some shine in a new context. Scholars credit Muir’s wilderness writing with generating support for the preservation of western wildlands amongst non-proximate urban communities in the Eastern United States, and there’s hope that movies like this will generate widespread support for responding to climate change through their focus on individual places. After all, it worked on me: I have not visited the John Muir Wilderness, but nonetheless feel a connection to it. Stoke plus science plus place seems like a winning combination for motivating conservation. Scientists should take advantage of openings presented in popular culture – ski movies, television shows, music – to communicate about their work with the public. Similarly, enthusiasts for the outdoors should recognize the opportunities to support scientists and land managers as they grapple with the challenge presented by climate change.

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