Q&A: Jeremy Jones on Climate Deniers & Founding the Nonprofit POW
The snowboard legend talks about his new film, Purple Mountains, promoting climate science on Capitol Hill, and starting Protect Our Winters
Courtesy Protect Our Winters
Climate Change is real! Assuming that if you read Field Mag, you’ve known this for decades. Sadly, it’s one of the most contentious debates we see in our current political discourse. As our forests currently burn, frozen tundras melt, and coral reefs die off, far too many people in America prefer to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem, rather than accept the scientific fact. To say the least, it’s frustrating. But how did we get here? How did we go from almost joining the Paris Accord to total polarization on climate action? This is the question Jeremy Jones looks to tackle in his latest documentary Purple Mountains.
For those unfamiliar with Jeremy Jones, he is regarded as the most legendary big mountain rider and most vocal climate action advocate in snowboarding. His nonprofit, Protect Our Winters, has pioneered a collective approach within the winter sports community to battling climate change.
That fight is the focus of Purple Mountains, where Jones travels to the most conservative county in Nevada to meet with climate skeptics who are also outdoor enthusiasts. His goal is not to change their minds, but to listen and learn from their viewpoint—finding common ground to build upon in the ongoing fight against climate change.
We recently had the chance to speak with Jones about Purple Mountains, how talking head climate skeptics skew data for their favor, and what it has been like building POW from the ground up.
Read on for the edited interview and stream Purple Mountains for free at PurpleMountainsFilm.com.
In the film you say that “the environment is never a divisive issue." But it certainly is now. When you think that shifted within this country?
I mean, there are different levels of that. Where it was maybe considered divisive ten years ago compared to say four years ago has greatly changed. But going back, Reagan definitely started working hard to roll back environmental regulations and really incentivized big business—acting on the environment is bad for business, and deregulation's good for business. But from a climate perspective, it was in the Nineties. You had the first George Bush Senior using strong language about acting on climate. And then even dating back to the Obama-McCain election, they debated climate action, not the science of climate change.
You’ve interviewed some prominent climate deniers, the ones pushing against science. What did their perspective add to the movie?
Well, these are the people that really set talking points that then ripple throughout the other side of the climate issue. I felt that it was important to go to the source, understand the origins of the anti-acting-on-climate people, and hear it in their own words.
What was so eye-opening to me was just the dead certainty that they would say things. I would hear things like, "oh, the coral reefs, well, the water's getting warmer… don't worry, there'll be way more coral reefs in the future. A warming planet is good for that." I hear things like that, and I can't. That seems crazy, but I'm not a coral reefs expert.
When it comes to snowfall, I actually can consider myself an expert. I mean, I had these guys like, "Oh no, it actually snows more now than it ever has before. No worries, dude. You are all good. Nothing to see here." They're slick. They stick to good talking points. The certainty that they brought to that was eye-opening.
"If you can get an issue to be an identity issue, then it's really hard to have meaningful conversations about it. That's the last thing the fossil fuel industry wants, that we're even discussing climate issues. That's why it's become identity politics."
I go into the conversation knowing I'm not going to change their views, I just want to hear them riff. And one of the guys when I go to hang up with him, I said, "Hey, piece of advice, you got to lose the snow bit. You're going to get bitten in the ass. Stop talking. Just trust me on this. That part of your act is not going to hold up. Focus on some other stuff, but not the snow bit."
Some constructive criticism.
[Laughs] Yeah. On how to be a better climate denier.
In response you focus on how they cherry-pick the facts that best suit their arguments without looking at the bigger picture. You use that to push back without debating them...
Yeah, that is a great example. There's this Rutgers Snow Study that they would reference, it's this really extensive report covering a ton of data. One piece of data says there's more snowfall and snow cover in one instance but then states clearly that overall snow cover is in decline. They stake their whole argument on this one piece, but there's just no doubt if you read the whole report. We have an issue with snow, and it's trending the wrong way.
Danny Davis is a neighbor, and we love to daydream about having cabins in the mountains. We would look at all these places where just 15 years ago, I'm like, "Oh my God, that is the spot to get a cabin." Fifty percent of those places I've written off. Now we can only daydream of cabins in really high elevations due to the fact that we're not getting snow at lower elevations at the consistency that we used to.
You also made it a point to meet with people who fall in more of the climate skeptic camp. What was your biggest takeaway from those conversations?
I had hoped to go to a couple of the other Purple States—the reality of the pandemic made things more challenging. The people I met in Nevada really enjoy the outdoors, primarily skiing and snowboarding. They love winter and are connected to the environment. So this is what I would consider pretty darn moderate people. Our conversations were much different from say, my conversations with these professional climate denial think tank leaders—no question, easy to get along with, good people. We agree on a ton of stuff. They're not fighting climate change facts, but you see the power of identity politics' tactics. There's just no way they're crossing the aisle on climate. It's not their main concern. But to do so, they'd have to cross the aisle on all these other issues that they are more important to them.
If you can get an issue to be an identity issue, then it's really hard to have meaningful conversations about it. And the sad part is, as you look into it, you understand these big industries, they want us as divided as possible. The idea of, "Hey, there's a town hall meeting on climate change, we want to hear from everyone on, and let's just have a conversation about it." That's the last thing the fossil fuel industry wants, that we're even discussing climate issues. And that's why it's become identity politics.
"The reality is, no politician has ever lost an election due to their stance on climate. It's why we do not see real, meaningful climate action."
Do you see a path to break down the identity politics around climate issues?
At Protect Our Winters, we go to Capitol Hill every year and spend the majority of our time meeting with moderate Republicans on climate. And we're seeing some different language from them. This fall, we saw the stance had greatly changed from just this out and out climate denier to "It appears the climate may be changing. We should do some more research and look into some possible solutions.” We all met up at the end of the day, and we're like, "oh my God, we got that same exact wording. "
Greta Thunberg came to the US a week later and climate issues made National News. Then, sure enough, on Fox, those exact words were being used. Then I go to rural Nevada, and they throw those exact words to me. That's when I was like, oh, wow, this is just incredible, this network is really impressive. That is a positive change, and that came out of nowhere. I just think it's getting harder and harder to deny the facts of climate. So I hope that we continue to trend fast to, "All right, there's a problem; let's talk about solutions."
I mean, we couldn't get to hear the words climate change. So I think the problem with that statement is, there's no urgency to it and we need urgency on climate. We've been debating if there's a problem for so long and just stalling, which is exactly what the fossil fuel industries want us to do. Really, we should be debating the best way to embrace solutions.
You’ve said that you never considered yourself an environmentalist before starting POW. Was there a specific moment or event that made you flip the switch?
For a long time, I worked with Rossignol, and I would go to this glacier in Chamonix. The Europeans have been living among glaciers for hundreds of years, and they have really simple data. Each season, they mark where the glacier's end is with a dab of paint and put the year on it. They've been doing this for a hundred years, and you can go to that glacier and see that it's retreating. Then you see this rapid level of a retreat really start increasing in the 2000s. It's just a simple thing to be like, "whoa, that does not look right." That is not the rate it was for a long time. And that acceleration continues to grow.
I mean, not to go down the rabbit hole on Chamonix, but they have permafrost melt. So their lift towers and tram are starting to move now, and they don't know what to do because what it's anchored on is melting. And this is at the top of the mountain. So that was a real eyeopener.
I started seeing changes everywhere. All the low elevation zones that we love to ride were seeing a lot more rain. I was in Northern Canada, with some locals walking their resort that was no longer open. They were only in their early thirties, and I asked them why it's not open anymore. They said, "we don't get snow anymore." And so it was just a combination of these things, where I'm seeing this first hand, and it coincides exactly with what scientists are telling me.
Many view you as the pioneer for climate and environmental activism in the snowboard world. Did you look to other organizations for inspiration and guidance when you first started POW?
The Surf Rider Foundation. That was the first place, that first organization that I donated to at a young age. Seeing what surfers were doing—I loved to see these people protecting surf breaks. I was like, I don't have a lot of extra money, but I'm writing a $25 membership check to them. So that would be the most obvious example.
[With POW] I basically was like, this needs to happen. I was seeing these obvious signs coinciding with science, and at that point, my career was starting to do well. I had a lot of signature products and wanted to take a percentage of sales and devote it towards climate groups, and people working on climate action. As I researched it, I was struggling to find somewhere to do that. So I reached out with a friend who has connections to one of the Surf Rider Foundation chapters and he came back a week later and said, "You need to start one. Your industry community is doing nothing on climate." And I was like, "That is the last thing I want to do."
So I kicked it down the road for two years, and I mean, he was right.
"I do think it's important to understand your impacts on the environment. However, villainizing people for their carbon footprint is explicitly written in the fossil fuel guide to make people point fingers at each other."
When I went for it, I basically just threw it out there to the world. It was like this infant that I just propped up and was like, people are going to come and help and make this thing happen, or it's going to die. So right out of the gate, it was all about, together we can Protect Our Winters.
This is not just a Jeremy Jones foundation. Sure, I planted the seed, but everyone either gathers around and helps it grow, or it doesn't. Thankfully, people immediately started coming together, and that continues to grow. And now I am a spoke in the wheel and that's critical to the success of POW, that it is this collective effort.
In recent years, you've made it your goal to decarbonize the way you snowboard and film. Do you have any tips for other outdoorists who want to follow your lead?
I do think it's important to understand your impacts on the environment. However, villainizing people for their carbon footprint is explicitly written in the fossil fuel guide to make people point fingers at each other. Personal carbon footprint matters, but we are in a fossil fuel society that is heavily subsidized. We are not achieving our goals of CO2 reduction off of just personal choices. The big chunks of CO2 reduction need to come from policy change.
I definitely don't want to say, villainize the 23-year-old super pro that is competing around the world and cranking. I give them the advice, "Say yes to everything, you need to." But from a personal footprint deal, diet is the simplest way to reduce your personal footprint.
Also, I was never one to be a storm chaser. I always like to really immerse myself into mountain ranges and spend a bunch of time there, recognizing that really high-end snowboarding generally goes down 20 to 25 days into a trip where you are locked into a snowpack. That is how I routed my snowboarding going way back to when I first got serious about making movies.
Is there a key message POW is looking to push ahead of the 2020 election?
The reality is, no politician has ever lost an election due to their stance on climate. It's why we do not see real, meaningful climate action. At Protect Our Winters, if we can help hold people accountable, that's ideal. If you're not a climate champion, you're going to have a hard time keeping your job. And I don't care what side of the aisle you are on, POW is a bipartisan group focused on climate action.