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Auden Schendler speaks well and writes well and has never been shy about expressing his opinions, at least as regards the imperative of responding to the threat of climate change.
He’s the senior vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co., a position which offers him a more prominent platform but also has a way of making him vulnerable to criticism because —well, Aspen’s business model is dependent on rich people flying long distances, many of them in private jets.
His essay, “Big Oil Wants You to Blame Yourself,” was published on Sept. 5 in the Sunday New York Times, the second op/ed of his published by the Times during the last three years.
Big Pivots had an e-mail conversation with Schendler:
Big Pivots: What does it feel like to get published in arguably the world’s most influential opinion section?
Auden Schendler: I’m a writing geek and don’t take this lightly. It took me 30 years to get in the Times as a solo author. And the difficulty of the task was equal to the accomplishment.
There’s nothing like the Times for reach. My Twitter, email and Linked-In accounts exploded, and are still going off. You just reach so many eyeballs. I have published many pieces in obscure journals where my mom was probably the only reader. And that was good stuff, but nobody saw it. That’s the writer’s life much more than getting in the Times.
Pivots: I can relate. You take on “carbon neutrality” in your most recent piece. You say that in adopting this goal, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks—and well, even ski resorts and your local coffee roaster, too—are doing exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants. What does the fossil fuel industry want?
Schendler: As long as civil society, business, and government stays out of their way, the fossil fuel industry is happy. So, carbon neutrality, science-based targets, circular economies—all these voluntary measures that don’t affect them, they love and support it all.
What they fear are social movements, board takeovers like what happened to ExxonMobil this summer, public shaming, CEOs calling for climate action. They don’t want regulation or, say, taxation of carbon. And if they do support a tax, it’s so that they can avoid regulation, or vice versa.
The turn my essay makes is that it’s not just “not enough” to do your carbon neutral thing: It’s complicit with a power structure that is destroying us.
Pivots: You cite the example of a smaller but still serious problem, the ozone depletion of the 1970s and 1980s. Why was the response to that problem relevant to our challenges today?
Schendler: I used that example to show that big systems problems need solutions that are to scale, and that we’re capable of it. I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy for climate, because the urgency behind dealing with the ozone hole was based primarily on science, and a profitable solution existed—it was before faith in science was gutted by disinformation and money.
With climate, the scale solution looks like a social movement, not as much a technocratic/government fix, at least initially. You need the movement first to enable the policy fix.
Pivots: Your New York Times piece seems to be a condensed version of your much longer piece published in April 2021 by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Had to love that opening paragraph in your essay, “The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability,” which you end by talking about cooking chicken feet. Does that come from personal experience?
Schendler: Yes, the Stanford piece is my bildungsroman and I would urge anyone interested in this thinking to read that. The notion of efficiency as being like Chinese cooking came from Amory Lovins’ colleague Eng Lock Lee, an engineer, who notes that in Chinese cooking, you don’t waste anything.
But the point is well taken: the modern environmental movement’s basis in efficiency and individual responsibility and action (whether at the person or corporate level) has a long history in the U.S. that isn’t entirely the result of fossil fuel industry deviousness. It goes back to Yankee thriftiness and Thoreau tending his beans. As two colleagues—Derik Broekhoff and Mark Trexler—pointed out to me, the environmentalists put the gun of personal responsibility to their heads; BP just pulled the trigger with its carbon footprint calculator.
Pivots: In that Stanford essay, you tell about your time at the Rocky Mountain Institute, working among such luminaries as Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken and others. Lovins, in particular, is famous in my memory for saying that businesses should do things that save energy because it saves them money. But you say that the idea of business transformation, while having merit, comes up short. You say, “The issue isn’t only that sustainable business practices don’t scale, although this is true and pertinent. The problem is that they displace meaningful action.”
What is meaningful action?
Schendler: You have to ask: “is the thing I’m doing to address climate change (which is the sine qua non of dealing with sustainability) actually moving the needle? Will it result in meaningful carbon reductions in a meaningful timeframe?”
That filter is clarifying. Essentially, the only way we get to a climate stabilizing at 2 degrees C above preindustrial times is through aggressive government action. And the only way we get that is through a massive social movement.
So the question is: “How do you wield what power you have to support the movement and or ensure aggressive government policy?” It’s not through buying carbon offsets and cutting your carbon footprint, and it’s not through tracking your emissions meticulously. That kind of head-down navel gazing is uncontroversial, but also fails to engage the problem at any scale.
It’s not hard to tell if a business is using its power in a meaningful way. Are they speaking out loudly and repeatedly from the highest level—the CEO and marketing outlets, social media and email—using all their tools and influence? Are they withdrawing from trade groups or aggressively pressuring them, or hiding behind them?
A great example is happening right now around the reconciliation bill, which is America’s last shot at meaningful climate legislation. Job one, if you profess to care about climate, should be to ensure the reconciliation budget gets through, first, and second, that it has adequate climate measures—like a lot of money to rebuild the grid, a national clean energy standard, a carbon border tax.
But a huge number of the admired businesses that say they care about climate are opposing reconciliation because they don’t want their taxes to go up.
Pivots: Are the ski and outdoor industry trade groups using all their power, public and private? How do you see them as compared to other industry groups?
Schendler: For years I thought that skiing and outdoor sports would eventually fade away due to lack of snow. Now I think we’re just going to burn down. And it’s happening right now—see the Sierra at Tahoe experience. So there is huge urgency here. And yet, if this reconciliation bill doesn’t get through with substantial climate features, we may have missed the last opportunity to turn the tide.
So I’ve always hoped for way, way more aggressive action from the trade groups—meaning that climate is clearly a top priority, the head of the orgs talk about it and write about it all the time. I’ve been pretty disappointed. But it’s changing. Snowsports Industries Association of America has stepped up admirably under Nick Sargent’s leadership, applying pressure to elected officials, changing social norms by talking about climate. The National Ski Areas Association just sent a letter to the congressional ski caucus supporting climate action in the reconciliation bill. That’s great. Is this enough? There’s a good case to be made that we need to be vastly more radical.
Pivots: Reviewing your 2009 book, “Getting Green Done,” I see you working two very big and overlapping ideas. One is that climate change demands action at scale and, as in these more recent essays, that voluntary efforts by businesses ultimately fall short. For example, on page 22, you say:
“The goal of this book is to help you define meaningful action and then get those jobs done. That might mean changing your lightbulbs, but don’t stop there. Figure out how you can leverage yourself as your business to drive policy changes at the highest level—how can you help ensure that everyone on the planet changes their lightbulbs—and recognize that this work, in the end, will have the greatest impact.”
Yet, your thinking has also evolved. How?
Schendler: When I was writing “Getting Green Done,” I was of the mindset that all the actions we were taking in the sustainable business arena—mostly around energy efficiency and renewables—were good and necessary, but we weren’t being honest about them and then we weren’t using that street cred to pivot to policy.
My new understanding of corporate sustainability, boiled down to bare bones, can be summed up in two ideas.
First, “corporate sustainability,” and the measures such an approach would implement, is really just “business management.” It’s a misnomer, because most of the actions make sense, save money, generate good PR, and importantly, don’t actually address sustainability if you think of it globally.
And second, effective work on sustainability is really what’s today called “government affairs.” I’ve been frustrated when corporate sustainability staff can’t do policy. But that’s like trying to drive a nail with a crescent wrench—it was the wrong tool.
For a true sustainability effort, you need to couple a government affairs department with some courage and balls.
Pivots: Give me one sentence from your New York Times essay that you want people to remember. OK, two sentences.
Schendler: Imagine if businesses put as much effort into climate lobbying as climate neutrality.
Pivots: Somebody told me recently that climate warriors can be grouped into two camps, the Al Gore followers and the Bill McKibben followers. Accurate?
Schendler: That’s a great line. Gore may be the smartest guy working in the field, and McKibben is both the most strategic and the best pure human being.
I have great respect for them both, but I’m in McKibben’s camp. Overall, I think the field has suffered some from lack of leaders. Both of those guys would tell you they didn’t necessarily want that role, and would welcome new voices. In fact, McKibben spends a lot of his time cultivating and supporting young leaders.
Pivots: Readers of Big Pivots tend to be well versed in climate change issues. Just the same, anybody to whom you’d direct their attention. And why?
Schendler: There’s a growing cabal of apostates who are questioning business as usual in corporations and society.
It’s been incredibly refreshing to have an expanding community of what one member calls the “grouchy men’s club.” They include Tariq Fancy, on ESG issues, Andy King at Boston University, Ken Pucker at Tufts, Duncan Austin who coined the term “greenwishing,” and a few others, including Tom Lyon at University of Michigan, Mark Trexler, who I’ve worked with for years on climate risk and head-exploding corporate sustainability stupidity.
If you google them you’ll find their work, and it’s worthy and unconventional. This group would make a great cocktail party.
Pivots: Got anything more in the works for the NY Times?
Schendler: No, I’ve thinking more about retirement than getting in there again…
Editor’s note: Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots, where this post first appeared. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720.415.9308.