The slippery (ski) slopes of climate change

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States—Join the conversation!

climate change

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Will this be less common under climate change?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Climate change, we are boldly informed by many scientists and journalists, brings catastrophe. Get ready for violent conflict, mass migration, food and water shortages, riots in the streets, and tremendous superstorms. Notwithstanding that all these have always affected society, some even claim that climate change could threaten the existence of humanity.

As part of the package, apparently, is the devastating threat from climate change to winter sports. Imagine the horror that some people will not be able to ski as much! Will we survive the terrible crisis that many previous Winter Olympics and Paralympics venues could no longer host the games?

Sardonicism aside, these topics reach far beyond accusations of the frivolous. Impacts of climate change on winter sports ripple out far beyond recreation, while linking closely to those who most need to act on climate change.

Skiing is not just for Norwegians quitting work at 3 p.m. on a February Friday to hit the trails for a few hours before warming themselves up with “medicinal” alcohol. Skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and other winterscape uses are inherent to ways of life around the northern latitudes.

Many use it to hunt food and preserve their traditional knowledge and livelihoods, while embracing everything that modern technology offers. Others use winter recreation as a way of de-stressing, recharging, appreciating nature, staying healthy, and creating quality of life.

For them, it is not simply about less snow and ice. Cold winters freeze rivers, lakes, and inlets, making it safe to traverse the landscape. Thinner ice and warmer temperatures make it far more dangerous to roam. One miscalculation about the weight ice will bear and you break through to the chilled water below with low chances of survival.

Avalanche patterns change with the climate. Previous experience on where to ski and where to build is becoming rapidly out of date. Again, this is not just highfalutin lodges hosting weekend breaks. It has been lethal for people who use snowy lands to live.

Yet we cannot dismiss those who are merely frustrated at having to change their holiday plans or sports viewing. They are not only directly affected but also tend to be those contributing substantially to climate change’s causes. We need to involve them on their terms, not alienate them with complaints that their concerns are trivial and their attitudes arrogant, compared to those who can no longer hunt for their own food or who might die doing so.

Nonetheless, if we can engage people on a global topic like climate change only because it will curtail their own affluent activities, what does this mean for compassion and empathy? Why don’t we all care about countries being turned upside down and devastation around the world? Part of the answer is that, often, we react only when we are directly affected.

Part of the answer is that the doom and gloom is not fully accurate. Reviewing all climate change research leads to more balanced and nuanced conclusions than inevitable death, disaster, and destruction. Calamitous scenarios are realistic from climate change, but they remain a long way from being definite. Especially if we choose to do something about it.

Being poor makes it harder to act. Those who are more affluent contribute most to climate change and can do the most about it. We need to do so now.

If your skiing being impeded convinces you to learn more about climate change and what we can do about it, then go for it! If you are concerned about not being able to watch winter sports, then join the teams seeking knowledge and action on climate change.

But never forget those affected beyond the enjoyment of winter. Recognize that heat waves are moving into realms beyond what people, livestock, and crops can survive. Accept that Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet collapse might inundate several island countries and many world ports. Realize that fossil fuels are a finite resource so, irrespective of climate change, we must wean ourselves off them.

And never let a lot of snow today distract you from the long-term trends. Weather is day-to-day while climate change happens across decades.

Be aware also that the science of climate change impacts is complicated. There is so much we can and should do immediately to help ourselves, no matter what the climate is doing. We can live healthier lifestyles by driving less, we can improve our diets by eating local foods and less meat, and we can reuse clothes and other goods much more to reduce consumption.

This might help to preserve skiing and other winter recreation. Far more importantly, it helps ourselves with healthier lives as well as those who can least act to help themselves.

The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.

This article originally appeared in the March 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.