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The American Alpine Club Gets Personal and Practical on Climate Change

With its new Climbers for Climate campaign, the American Alpine Club is looking to take a stand against climate change in multiple, concrete ways.

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WE HEAR YOU! declares the landing page for the American Alpine Club’s (AAC) new campaign, Climbers for Climate.

According to a survey conducted by the American Alpine Club in collaboration with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 91% of AAC members are worried about climate change, and with good reason. Phil Powers, CEO of the AAC, writes, “Whether you boulder, sport climb or spend your time in the high alpine, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our sport, our lives, and our planet.” That’s why the AAC is taking steps to address climate change, both internally and externally, and calling on climbers to join them in the fight.

It shouldn’t be news that globally warming temperatures, sea level rise, and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and flooding pose an existential threat to the world population and global biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), alongside the vast majority of scientists, has been telling us this for decades.

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In its latest report, however, the IPCC warns that even a half degree of warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius would significantly worsen the impacts of climate change, in many cases doubling their severity or likelihood. In vulnerable areas like the Arctic, which is warming two to three times as fast as the global average, the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming is an order of magnitude; under 1.5 degrees of warming, the Arctic may experience ice-free summers only once every 100 years, as opposed to every 10 years under 2 degrees.

A lake in the Mont Blanc massif at over 3,400 meters. The lake formed for the first time this year after a massive heat wave that struck Europe in June. Photo: Bryan Mestre.

Like the arctic, mountains are warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world, leading to melting glaciers, smaller and more inconsistent annual snowpack, heat stress in mountain wildlife, and loss of alpine vegetation zones. These effects, in turn, have downstream impacts on vulnerable mountain communities, mountain-based economies, and folks like the AAC members who love and play in the mountains.

It’s time to act, the IPCC says.

With Climbers for Climate, the American Alpine Club has launched the rallying cry for a broad coalition of more than 24,000 climbers, mountaineers, explorers and scientists. “The American Alpine Club represents an outdoor community whose ethos is inextricably linked to healthy mountain environments and ecosystems,” it begins. As such, that community has a responsibility to “address [climate change] as a direct threat to the climbing community” through urgent, coordinated action.

To avoid catastrophic warming, scientists say, the world needs to reach “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. This means dramatically reducing carbon output, and balancing any residual emissions by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere, through strategies like reforestation. As such, the AAC is working towards carbon neutrality as an organization, improving the sustainability of their facilities and developing carbon offset programs for their board members, trips, and eventually, climbers in general.

“When we thought about the issue of climate change,” says Taylor Luneau, policy manager for the AAC, “we knew we needed to address it in multiple fields. To create large, long-lasting change…we need to create systems change.” As Maria Povec, Policy and Advocacy director for the AAC, puts it, “We’re putting money where our mouth is, showing up to the table, and educating our communities along the way.”

The AAC plans to increase grant funding for climate research in mountain environments, and solicit stories from their members about how changing climate is impacting climbers and the outdoor industry. Together, evidence and narrative will allow the AAC to effectively lobby for pro-climate legislation, primarily at a state level. This lobbying will expand on their Climb the Hill and Hill to Crag events, which connect climbers with key legislators to talk about issues and policies relevant to the outdoor industry.

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Using climbers and their stories for climate change advocacy makes sense not only because it’s an issue that’s relevant to them—94% of climbers believe that climate change poses a threat to the places they climb, ski and mountaineer (AAC 2019)—but also because it’s an issue that they can speak to from personal experience. “Because we recreate outside so much, because we have such a close connection to these mountain landscapes and pay attention to what’s happening in them, we are very tuned into change,” Luneau says. More than 1,400 people have responded to an AAC survey saying that they have witnessed changes in the mountain landscape that they attribute to climate change. Many of those changes, from melting glaciers to more frequent and severe wildfires, are highlighted in a story map.

“These stories are just a bellweather for something much larger that’s happening,” Luneau says.

According to the AAC’s policy position statement, “While the AAC is concerned about the impact that a changing climate will have on our shared climbing environment, we are equally concerned about all of the adverse impacts of climate change, especially those affecting front line, subsistence mountain communities worldwide.” It further acknowledges that “climate change disproportionately impacts poor and marginalized communities lacking the resources to adapt,” and that climate justice needs to be a central part of the AAC’s work on climate change.

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“Climbing is a way of getting our foot in the door,” says Luneau. Climbing’s transformative power connects people to each other and the land in a deeply meaningful way, allowing the AAC to unite a diverse, global coalition around a shared passion. “We saw how climbing united so many people in the fight to protect Bears Ears, regardless of whether they’d ever been or would ever go, and it’s going to be the same way with climate change,” says Luneau.

Moreover, “Messengers matter,” he says. With the rising popularity and political clout that climbers and the outdoor industry currently enjoy, climbers can be really effective messengers. Luneau believes that “climbers are the perfect constituency to address climate change.” They are “tenacious, focused, beta driven, work hard, seek out challenges and get fixated on how to overcome them.” It’s certainly going to take hard work and creative solutions to make a difference in the fight against climate change.

It’s also going to ruffle some feathers. “If you’re taking bold steps, you are going to upset people,” says Luneau. Already, some folks have rejected the Climbers for Climate campaign, calling it too political. But overall, it has been met with overwhelming support.

Engagement with science and support for conservation has always been integral to the American Alpine Club’s values. This campaign is not a dramatic pivot into the political arena, but rather a reconnection with who the AAC has always been. When founded in 1902, it was an organization whose charter considered “the Scientific Exploration and Study of the Higher Mountain Elevations and of the regions lying within or about the Arctic and Antarctic Circles” more important than the practice of mountaineering. In 2019, it is an organization funding climate research and telling stories from mountain and arctic environments, using that knowledge and intimacy to advocate for the protection of those selfsame environments.

“We are the organization in the climbing world to be tackling climate change,” says Povec. “It’s who we are and who our climbers want us to be.”

Take Action!

Learn more about Climbers for Climate and read the AAC’s Policy Position statement on Climate Change

You can support the AAC’s work by joining the club, donating, sharing your story with climate change using their story map, signing up for policy updates, signing the Outdoor Alliance petition and so much more!

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