Aspen and the End of Snow
Credit: Photograph by Erik Johansson

Schendler stands at the foot of a coal-powered gondola that, even though it is the middle of the summer, is running circuits up Aspen Mountain. He has been employed 14 years at Skico, as it is known locally, but Schendler doesn't think of himself as a "company guy." He prefers "dirtbag." Although he was raised in Weehawken, New Jersey – or perhaps because he was raised in Weehawken – he has been a devoted "outdoors guy" since his uncle took him on a brutal, three-day hiking trip through Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness at the age of 14, when he fell in love with the West – its wild beauty and its doctrine of virtuous toil. Today Schendler's appearance strikes a compromise between his nature and his nurture. As a concession to Skico, he is freshly shaved, with a crisp haircut and a pressed oxford shirt. But the shirt is tucked baggily into his jeans, and the sandals and black Oakleys belong to the kind of person who sneaks away from work in order to take a 25-mile bicycle ride in the mountains – which he does whenever the opportunity presents itself, with his boss's encouragement. Like most Aspenites, Schendler is exuberantly, ostentatiously healthful; he's tall and hale, with a strong jaw, strong hands, and a strong brow. The man is 43 but looks 10 years younger and has the energy of a man 20 years younger. He is the skier or biker or marathoner who races past you with a smile and a friendly wave, going twice your speed.

At Skico, Schendler is vice president of sustainability, an odd title for a job unlike any other in corporate America. He was originally hired to reduce the company's environmental footprint. This was a considerable responsibility, since Skico is the largest employer in not only Aspen but the entire Roaring Fork Valley – the broad, green plain that runs 40 miles southeast from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, circumscribed, like arches on a crown, by seven 14,000-foot peaks. Skico operates all four local ski mountains, 17 restaurants, and two luxury hotels, including the Little Nell. On Schendler's first day of work, he told the Little Nell's manager that he was going to replace all the lights in the hotel with compact fluorescent bulbs. The new bulbs would last 10 times longer, save money, and cut energy use by 75 percent. It seemed an obvious baby step. The hotel manager flatly refused. "When you go to Las Vegas and stay in a Motel 6," he told Schendler, "it has compact fluorescent bulbs. This isn't a Motel 6."

Schendler, defeated, realized he would have to take a more cunning approach. Largely he has succeeded. More than a decade later, Skico's emissions have fallen by approximately 4 percent, despite the fact that its revenue has grown by 41 percent. The company now operates its own solar array, a hydroelectric plant, and, since November 2012, a methane-capturing plant – a $5.5 million investment that alone generates enough energy to offset Skico's total usage. Two years ago, the Little Nell even switched out its incandescent lightbulbs. Schendler wrote about his successes, and his many failures, in Getting Green Done, a complimentary copy of which appears in every room of Skico's Limelight Hotel. The hotel does not keep records of how many guests take the book home with them.

Schendler now has a new objective: "To make sure that Aspen Skiing Company stays in business forever." That is another way of saying that his job is to stop global warming. Schendler is perhaps the only corporate executive in the United States whose success can be measured not in profit but in snowfall. His tone, accordingly, has shifted. "Auden's ready to pick a fight any minute," says Chris Davenport, a world-champion mountain skier who sits with Schendler on the board of Protect Our Winters, an advocacy group for the winter sports community that seeks to influence national environmental policy. "He's a beacon of hope for our industry. He broke the ice, took risks, and made it easier for other people."

"Climate change is so big," says Schendler. "How do we begin to solve it? The ski industry offers a metaphor. And we've had a disproportionate role in the conversation."

He visits congressmen in D.C., gives lectures at the Googleplex and the Yale School of Management, and publishes essays in 'The Atlantic' and 'Grist' with titles like "Selma, Montgomery, and Climate Change" and "The Wall Street Journal's Willful Climate Lies." He reserves his greatest scorn for "green­washing," the cosmetic, ostentatious gestures toward "sustainability" that corporations make – plastic-bag bans, for instance, or the sign in hotel bathrooms offering not to launder soiled bath towels – while declining to lobby for major reforms. The bluntness of Schendler's arguments has damaged his relationships with colleagues, including his mentor, the scientist and environmental activist Amory Lovins. Before joining Skico, Schendler worked for three years at Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute, which promotes the doctrine of "natural capitalism." In Getting Green Done, Schendler called Lovins "one of the most important – and accurate – thinkers on the subject of how we solve the climate problem." Lovins is the face of "corporate sustainability" – the belief that companies, and, by extension, the world, will inevitably convert to renewable sources of energy and conservation practices because as technology advances, that will become profitable. This argument may hold true for lightbulbs, but, as Schendler wrote in a recent essay, it fails to "deal with the problem at anywhere near sufficient scale." That essay was titled "Corporate Sustainability Is Not Sustainable." Lovins no longer returns Schendler's calls.

"We need to create a civil rights–style revolution in climate," says Schendler. Aspen, he believes, can be this revolution's Selma. "Aspen can tell a story. We have the money and access to the most influential people in the world – which is another way of saying the wealthiest people in the world. We can model solutions, and they can be difficult solutions. Then the press will come from all over, and we'll tell them how we did it."

Not all ski companies consider it wise business practice to discuss the consequences of a heating planet. In December 2012, Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council funded a study to determine how much money warmer, shorter winters were costing the ski resort industry. The answer: $1.07 billion, in the past decade alone. Vail's CEO, Rob Katz, responded with an editorial in the 'Denver Post.' "It's hard to understand how the weather changes the way it does," he wrote. "You can count me out of the group that says we need to address climate change to save skiing."

"They think we shouldn't talk about this too much," Schendler tells me. "But it's not a negative message. We're going to save this industry." He pauses. "We have an opportunity to use Aspen as a weapon on climate policy. As a baseball bat."

Schendler is not the only one who speaks this way.

"We have a tradition of great humanism here," says Chelsea Congdon Brundige, an activist for local waterways. "Aspen is a laboratory where you can look for solutions."

"Aspen can be a model for other communities," says David Hornbacher, who manages the city's power grid. "Local actions, with a global result. That's what we do."

"Aspen views itself as a pioneer," says Mirte Mallory, an effervescent 33-year-old Aspen native who, a week after New York City began its bike-share program, launched Aspen's WE-cycle. "Living here is a privilege. It's our responsibility to be stewards."

"Our goal is to be a factory of Auden Schendlers," says Chris Lane, CEO of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES). Lane has organized an "environmental civil engagement campaign" designed to foment Schendler's "civil rights–style revolution" in climate policy. In the past year, ACES instructors, through its various programs, reached more than 100,000 people, almost half of whom were children. "My philosophy is that there's a bunch of Rush Limbaughs out there," says Lane. "There could be a kid in there who one day might become an adult who thinks global warming is crazy. But we're changing his mind."

"We have the liberty and the time to think about the big picture," says Mick Ireland, who completed his third and final term as Aspen's mayor in June. He bears a passing resemblance to Ronnie Wood, though he's in better physical condition, on account of his habit of biking as many as five hours a day. "A lot of communities struggle with things like budget cuts, crime, and school shootings. Civic leaders don't have much time to consider the environment. Here, our basic needs are met, so we're able to take action on larger issues. We're obliged to lead by example because we can."