The Chairlift Missionary

By Hans G. Ehrbar

Hans G. Ehrbar received his PhD in economics from the University of Michigan in 1985. He has taught economics courses on energy policy and global warming at the University of Utah.



Our study predicts that Park City’s climate will change substantially as a result of increased atmospheric GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations . . . total snowpack and snow coverage will be reduced, the ski season will be shorter, and less of Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) will be skiable . . . Our economic modeling results indicate that projected decreases in snowpack will have severe economic consequences for the region . . . By 2050, the potential impacts range from $160.4 million in lost output, $27.2 million in lost earnings, and 1,520 lost jobs (low emissions scenarios) to $392.3 million in lost output, $66.6 million in lost earnings, and 3,717 lost jobs (high emissions scenario).1


As an emeritus economist at the University of Utah, I am not surprised by the alarming economic impact that businesses, governments, and health organizations are predicting for their industries. Global warming is as certain as gravity; its effects are already being manifest, and we have only a short window of time before the most severe consequences of global warming arise.

Global warming’s effects on the ski industry are only the most superficial of the impacts we are about to witness. Mainstream university, consulting, and governmental studies are predicting the serious possibility of global water, food, and natural resource shortages, as well as increased violence over scarce resources within the next two decades. Only when economic growth pushes the planet past its resource limits, and we try to stop that growth, will we realize that we are driving a car without brakes. Behold our antagonist: the Religion of Progress.

Most skiers are not aware of the distressing possibilities I see in my head. So, when I ski, I feel compelled to act as the Chair Lift Missionary. I have a lot to say, but only a few minutes with my captive audience. After the ritual “What a wonderful day it is!” I usually say: “I am teaching a class where my students have the assignment to ask the people around them what they think about global warming. Do you think it is happening? Is it caused by humans? Is it dangerous?”

I’ll usually start with a middle-of-the-road-view, modulating it according to my seatmate’s tastes in order to keep the brief encounter pleasant. If their views are too mild for my tastes, I’ll pepper the conversation with a few ideas of my own: “I think that climate change is extremely dangerous, and that the institutions which should be running in high gear right now to prevent catastrophic climate change—state bureaucracies and big corporations—are only doing one tenth of what they could and should be doing. The media are complicit; they fail to inform the public about a clear and present danger.”

I sometimes find myself riding with climate-change deniers who will present arguments from the standard websites that are either demonstrably wrong or terribly misleading. Once these self-appointed experts hear my refutations, an icy silence will often settle on the chairlift and I will wonder if skiers, overcome by “chairlift rage,” have ever pushed each other off their seats.

It seems that we live in a deeply divided society, where one half of society is fully convinced that the actions or omissions of the other half are destroying their children’s future. What would it look like if the global warming revolution brought everybody to the same side, tearing out the obsolete fortifications between the owners of the means of production and the producers? What would happen if today’s capitalists found that they need the cooperation of the poor if they want the planet to be livable for everybody’s children?

Often my most painful chairlift talks are with strangers who are thoughtful and kind, because when we arrive at the top, they’ll usually say something out of character with our conversation, such as, “Have a nice afternoon, and good luck on your project,” or, “Thank you for spreading the word,” as if I were pursuing a leisurely, private hobby. I am still unclear on how rude I need to be. I sometimes feel as if I am trying to yell, “Your house is on fire!” while assuming the social veneer appropriate to an afternoon cup of tea with the Queen.

Why am I almost never content with the responses I get? Because if these people knew and cared about what is happening to our planet, they would vote the climate change deniers out of Congress and demand policies that do not sacrifice the future of our children on the altar of profits, habits, and conveniences. I feel like I am someone who thinks the sky is blue living in a place where most everybody else thinks the sky is orange.

I find some peace in telling myself that my criticisms should not be directed so much at individuals as at the social relations that entangle us. Society both enables and constrains us in stronger ways than we usually realize. Perhaps we are on a noble but difficult quest to change the social structure that engulfs us all—a quest that has been tried many times in history. It is called “revolution,” and it often ends in a different outcome than intended.

Though the DNA of modern society is drenched in oil, coal, and gas, and the climate clock is ticking toward its inevitable alarm, I insist that it is not yet too late to avert the worst. Or to be more precise, we cannot yet know whether it is too late. Therefore, I soldier on with full awareness that the efforts of myself and other climate hawks may never be rewarded. If we cannot prevent climate change from turning into an avalanche beyond human control, I hope that we can at least begin to build a social fabric that will lighten the pain when growth collapses, our globalized infrastructure disappears, and humans find themselves on a much more hostile planet, leading short, brutish lives once again.

Humanity is risking expulsion from paradise because we have eaten from the tree of knowledge and now believe that we are God. In order to survive outside paradise, we would have to act in solidarity; we could no longer afford to be selfish. However, if we want a chance of avoiding expulsion, we must act in global solidarity and compassion now. Those better off (including most people living in the USA) must learn to go without many of the comforts that are part of their lives today. This must be followed by decades of deeply progressive changes in laws, institutions, culture, and international treaties, as well as a profound re-orientation of the economy.

According to President Hinckley, if the world is to be saved, Mormonism will have to do it. If Mormons really believe their prophets, it is time to put on missionary nametags and go to work. I’ll see you on the slopes.



1. 2009 study on the impact of global warming, commissioned by Park City Mountain Resort.