Failing Snow: The Ski Industry and the Problem of Change


Throughout the mountain west and all around the world, many people now acknowledge that climate change will present enormous challenges over the next several decades. In the ski industry, where snow is a big deal, most are concerned with what climate change will mean for tourism and the resorts. Very often, such concerns are framed as a kind of uncertainty about the science: about whether climate change is actually occurring or, if it is occurring, then how it will alter the mountain economy. It would be too easy to think, however, that the only challenge that climate change poses is one of whether or not it will happen. There are many other considerations that rest just under the surface: not only about whether climate change is real, but also what to do about climate change.

The ski industry, of course, is just one of many economic sectors that must grapple with concerns about climate change: so too must people in the agricultural, development, insurance, mining, energy and water sector. For this first episode of The Shifting Frontier, we explore the problem of change in the context of normative ethics.


Consider, for a moment, the complex questions associated with “change." On one hand, change is simple. It’s the descriptive Δ, a measure of difference over time. In the climate discussion, we’re concerned with how the climate will change. But on the other hand, change has a normative dimension as well. As the universe changes, actors within that universe must change in response. So the question for the actor is what to change in response to this observed or anticipated Δ. Certainly actors can change passively, by way of “being changed,” as they might be battered around like a ship at sea. But they can also change by taking a hand in this change. Maybe the appropriate response is to change their behavior—as when it begins to rain one changes into galoshes. Or perhaps it is to keep their behavior but to change their objectives—as one might decide to arrive at the party wet. Or perhaps it is yet more complicated than simply changing behavior or objectives. Maybe responding to change will involve changing one’s values—as one might shift to appreciate the state of being wet; or perhaps instead change one’s beliefs about what it is to be wet—as Londoners have a different sense of wetness than Tucsonans. Likewise, we’ll need to change something vital about our lives in order to respond to climate change. In our first episode, we use changes in the ski industry to cover some of the normative dimensions of change in hopes of illustrating clearly how climate change is much more than merely a descriptive observation.

Events and Actions

Our first entry point will involve acknowledging that, for the most part, our climate discussion has focused on climate and less on change. Inasmuch as this is the case, it has primarily focused on events, or occurrences in the world: carbon concentrations, temperature readings, weather patterns, and so on. Events, of course, present their own set of conceptual difficulties – many of which are detailed here -- but they’re hardly the only matter of concern for us. The biggest matter of concern for us is actually action, and more specifically, practical reason, which roughly speaking addresses the problem of figuring out what to do. Practical reason is a considerably more convoluted topic, with many spindly offshoots, but it can be useful if we hope to gain insight on the philosophical exploration that is to follow in the next nine episodes. One reason that it is important for us to turn our attention to action is because the complicated nature of action opens the door for us to think about what goes in to responding to climate change. In the above video we introduce only one model of intentional action -- the Belief/Desire model -- with the objective of laying bare the role of norms in shaping our actions.

Beliefs and Desires

This Belief/Desire model of action goes fairly far back in the history of philosophy and is often attributed to the philosopher David Hume. There is a great deal of controversy about whether it accurately or completely describes the process of "practical reasoning" about actions, but that isn't really our focus here. All we want to do is see how ethics can and probably does play in the climate discussion. Thinking about action in these terms can also help illuminate just how challenging progress on climate policy will be as we move forward.

For most of the past several decades, we have been focusing primarily on getting our beliefs right, on getting the science clear. But if the Belief/Desire model is accurate -- or even if it is only mostly accurate -- there is good reason to turn our attention to value as well. That is, if desires play an equally important role in shaping our actions, then we should be clear about the influences on our desires; and the easiest way to understand those desires is in terms of what we value. If we value something, we may develop desires to acquire or achieve that something. If I value money, I may make changes to my life to acquire more money. If I value the outdoors, I may make different decisions about how to live my life to be closer to the outdoors.

But this raises yet another important distinction, and one we'll be talking a bit about later in the series. That is, the distinction between descriptive and normative claims. It's fairly simple, but essentially:

Descriptive claims tell us what the human and non-human world is like so far as we can tell—such a statement characterizes the way things are in fact; it tries to give the real story no matter what the storyteller prefers, likes or dislikes.  It attempts to answer the question: What is going on?  What is happening?  What do people in fact prefer, value, believe?

Normative claims, by contrast, tell us what's right or wrong, good or bad about the human and non-human world--such a statement evaluates the way things are in terms of how they should be; it makes positive or negative value-judgments about what's happening, and what people do, believe, prefer.  It attempts to answer the question: what should be going on?  How ought things to be? Notice that we can make both kinds of judgments as actors or judges, participants or observers.

So in the climate discussion, most of the scientific literature treats the descriptive dimensions of the climate problem exceedingly thoroughly. Unfortunately, we’ve been less good about treating the normative dimensions of climate change.

The long and the short of this introduction to ethics is that our thinking about climate change must have both a descriptive and a normative dimension. We can’t just approach the problem as one of mere descriptive inquiry, because this doesn’t help us identify where we should go, what we should do. We also need to start raising questions about what values to endorse and how to pursue those values given the facts that we know.

 Here's a fairly helpful overview of the distinction from the Khan Academy:

Descriptive vs. Normative Claims 

And here are another two videos that will likely be helpful from WiPhi: