A Report from COP23: Still In for What?

Jessica O’Reilly in Antarctica (source: Jessica O’Reilly).

A Glacier Anthropologist Attends COP23

GlacierHub is pleased to have a report about COP 23 in Bonn from Jessica O’Reilly, a professor of international studies at Indiana University (IU) and one of our associates. She was featured in an interview with GlacierHub last year. She is currently in Bonn, attending the meeting.

O’Reilly is widely known for her work on Antarctica, where she applies anthropological methods and concepts to understand the world of cryosphere scientists. Her book The Technocratic Antarctic explores the intimacy with which Antarctic scientists experience their frozen world—an intimacy that includes feelings and moral concerns as well as facts—and shows how this connection shapes their work. She has also written about glaciers in the Himalayas and West Antarctica.

O’Reilly is attending COP23 as an official observer from IU, along with several others from the university. She is familiar with COPs, having attended as an official observer from other educational institutions and from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an environmental advocacy group. Her report from COP21 in Paris can be found here.

O’Reilly’s Report from COP23

In between the two formal zones, the “Bula Zone,” where plenary halls and the delegation offices are located, and the “Bonn Zone,” the site of the pavilions of organizations, sit the massive inflatable Climate Action Domes. These domes are the site of the unofficial United States pavilion and its high-powered contingent of governors, mayors, senators, and corporate executives. This pavilion is the temporary home of the We Are Still In movement that sprung up to counter President Trump’s intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

U.S. Climate Action Center at COP23, Bonn (source: Liz Bauch/Facebook).

This place is where the Resistance meets the Establishment in U.S. climate politics. To visit it is to be inspired. It is a place where people learn that mainstream, bipartisan leaders are continuing to push forward in the absence of national leadership, where they hear exchanges about marshalling the incredible wealth, optimism, and technological expertise in the U.S., and where they enjoy the hospitality of the welcoming space. But it is also troubling, as the mainstreaming of climate activism pushes others to the side.

This contrast was apparent in the event held to launch “America’s Pledge,” a commitment to lower carbon emissions that represents 49 percent of the U.S. population. If it were a country, it would be the third largest economy on the planet, behind the United States and China.

The South Pacific nation of Fiji chairs this meeting, despite its Bonn location, and Voreqe Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of Fiji, came to the Climate Action Domes to give a speech. It is the first time that a COP has been chaired by a small island developing state. He spoke about the climate pitches he receives: “buy electric buses”—but the roads in Fiji are too rough for the relatively fragile machines. “Invest in e-ticketing for your public transit!”— but they can’t afford the transit, let alone the e-ticket system. His speech reminded us of cultural and material difference, and of the vast economic and climate inequalities we live with.

California Governor Jerry Brown, speaking after the Prime Minister, was interrupted as four groups of protestors stood in turn to challenge Governor Brown on California’s continued fracking activity, among other concerns of indigenous and frontline communities. As each group was escorted away from the pavilion, they chanted “Still in for What?”

It is clear that they are contesting the Paris Agreement, as a plan to draw down carbon emissions over time while also keeping intact our structural inequalities, our economic system, and our consumption patterns.

Climate risks and suffering are unequally distributed. People in El Alto, Bolivia—including the city’s poorest people, many who do not have access to running water—have protested water rationing as the glaciers that historically recharge their reservoirs become diminished after a recent severe drought. The meeting underscored similarities across the most vulnerable regions. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) linked high mountain issues with concerns in the Arctic  and among small island states. It also discussed the forms of mountain community engagement that can promote resilience.

Even climate mitigation, as idealistic and necessary as it is, asks certain people to bear the burden for the common good, and it’s the same people bearing environmental costs since the outset of European exploration—indigenous people, poor people, women, and people of color. The contentious history of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, while a major source of renewable hydroelectricity, displaced 20,000 people, including indigenous people and their territories, underscoring the capacity of renewable energy projects to devastate communities and environments.

It is clear, from scientific reports and the accounts of people with deep knowledge in a place, that anthropogenic climate change is an urgent matter in need of immediate attention. However, the people asking “Still In For What?” at COP23 remind us that using the same tools that got us into this situation may not be sufficient for getting us out, and can continue to reproduce structural harm in our quest for solutions.

Glacial Retreat Closes Snow Park in Austria

A popular off-season freestyle snow park located on the Dachstein glacier in Austria has cancelled its fall season due to glacial retreat. The Superpark Dachstein became a favorite destination for local and international pro skiers and snowboarders, including Polish rider Adrian Smardz, to train during the summer months. Due to a lack of snow, the park will be opening its doors only in late autumn and closing again in the early summer, rather than maintaining its tradition of a year-round operation. Other attractions such as the ski slopes and cross country tracks will remain open. The news of the park’s closing followed the closing of Camp of Champions, a prominent camp on Horstman Glacier in Canada.

“After many great years of Superpark on the Dachstein glacier, we’ve heavy-heartedly decided that we will not rebuild Dachstein Superpark in the upcoming fall,” reads the official statement released by the park’s operators, Planai-Hochwurzen-Bahnen. “One important reason is the increasing glacial retreat in the park area. It is definitely unjustifiable that we were already forced to damage the glacial ice sheet during the build-up. It’s the dictate of the moment to preserve the glacial substance. We ask you to understand the justified criticism of environmentalists.”

Since it was created by pro-snowboarder Bernd Mandlberger in 2002, the park has been one of the only snow parks to remain open after May. Markus Zeiringer, the marketing head for Planai-Hochwurzen-Bahnen, said the park is “obliged to a responsible and sustainable approach to nature – especially on Dachstein glacier.” Zeiringer explained that last year, due to a lack of snow, the park had to damage the ice layer to build kickers, small handmade jumps that allow snowboarders and skiers to show off their tricks and gain height, ultimately prompting the park to reconsider its toll on the environment. “There is enough snow for skiers and cross-country skiers on Dachstein, but the kickers have not been justifiable any more,” he said.

As one of the first snow parks in Austria, the park has a unique geographical location on Dachstein Glacier in Austria, just below 2700 meters in elevation. The Hallstatt-Dachstein alpine landscape, part of the Eastern Alps, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its huge mountains and narrow valleys. Dachstein’s three glaciers— the Gosau, the Hallstätter, and the Schladminger— have already thinned out by around 50 centimeters to a full meter each year, which is two to three times more than the 20th century average, according to The Guardian. With 2015 the hottest year since 1880, almost all of Austria’s 900 glaciers have retreated 72 feet in 2015, more than twice the rate of 2014.

Superpark Dachstein slopes will not be rebuilt this coming fall (Source: Superpark Dachstein/Facebook).

The shrinking of Austria’s glaciers has taken a toll on recreation and the economy in the Alps, with Superpark Dachstein the latest snow park to succumb to temperature rise. Austria generates about 4.5 percent of the country’s gross national product on its ski industry, with about fifty percent of tourist income coming from its winter season alone, The Guardian reports. The surrounding landscapes have changed significantly, leaving locals and tourists with melting ice that could induce rock falls, rather than supplying snow to functioning resorts for vacation and recreation.

Similarly, in the United States, ski resorts that used to be open year-round are now being forced to close between May and September because the slopes have disappeared. Ben Marconi, a graduate of the Climate and Society master’s program at Columbia University and a competitive skier from Utah, told GlacierHub, “The changing distribution of snowfall throughout the season will affect when and how often we ski. The increasing likelihood of extreme weather events and the redistribution of snowfall throughout the season, compared to the climatological norm for a given region, has had a major impact on glacial ski areas.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Nick Smith, a journalist based in Austria, added, “Less snowfall during the year means a shorter ski season, which means lower tourism dollars, which is one of the primary means of income for many of these tiny towns. This can have a cascading effect if, for example, tourism dollars dry up in these rural areas, young people may move away rather than go into the tourism and mountain guide business, breaking the connection their towns have had for generations.”

A snowboarder seen in action at Superpark Dachstein (Source: Superpark Dachstein/Facebook).


“Snow accumulation is different in seasons where only a few large storms occur, bringing in large snowfall totals only a few times, versus seasons with predictable weekly snowfall,” said Marconi. “Regular snowfall patterns usually produce more stable snow packs for skiing, and can ultimately lead to longer seasons than errant, large storms dumping large quantities of snow at once.” 

There have been numerous tactics to slow down glacial retreat in the Alps, including the use of a system called the “All Weather Snowmaker”— a machine like a giant freezer and blower that turns water into artificial snow. A glacial ski resort in Pitztal, an alpine valley in Austria, has been using an Israeli system that can produce nearly a thousand cubic meters of artificial snow a day. If temperatures do not become too high, this machine, created by Israel-based IDE Technologies Ltd., can help produce a sufficient amount of snow to keep ski resorts running.

Unfortunately, snowmaking can be expensive, averaging around $500,000 annually, making it unmanageable for small local resorts. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found in 2016 that snowmaking will become increasingly unfeasible due to rising temperatures and energy costs.

Ski and resort industries have started to come together to fight against global warming, reducing their carbon footprint by using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. A new movement called “We Are Still In” is taking action on climate change by uniting the resort communities to take matter into their own hands. To date, the movement consists of 125 cities, 9 states, 902 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities, all who have pledged to lower carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement.