A line has been drawn in the Savoie region of the French Alps. On one side you have associations (French non-profits), local residents and climate change. On the other side you have big business, real estate and snow cannons.

The story is not unique and it is playing out across the globe. The people versus oil and gas. Nature vs big agriculture. The majority vs the wealthy minority.

Here, in the middle sit friends and neighbours that are trapped in a system. Many of them bury their heads in the sand and hope for the impossible.

In the Savoie we rely on the winter season for almost all our revenue. It’s why both the state and big business continue to invest money into an outdoor sport that will eventually collapse.

Climate change in the Alps

Temperatures are increasing at twice the rate in the Alps as in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. The temperature has risen by almost 2°C since the late 19th century.

Since 1960, the average snow season has shortened by 38 days. “Seasonal drift” has pushed the coldest weather from December to the early months of the year.

As I write this, heavy rain falls outside the window. The freezing level is hovering around the very peak of the local ski resort.

I don’t need to read the data or science to know that the Alps are changing. I spend my spare time in nature – skiing, running, gardening, walking the dog, pruning the fruit trees, and rounding up the chickens. I can see the change, and I can feel the change.

Nature is straining under rising temperature and biodiversity loss. The seasons are out of kilter. The glaciers are shrinking, the forests are drying out, and it rains when it would normally snow.

Reduced snowfall causing ski resorts to close

After only managing to open for four weeks in the 2022/23 ski season, the French resort La Sambuy has closed its slopes forever.

Jacques Dalex, La Sambuy’s mayor, told CNN that ‘[the resort] used to have snow practically from December 1 to March 30.’

With barely enough snow to open in January and February 2023, the resort was haemorrhaging around €500,000 annually. Running the lifts alone costs around €80,000 per year.

Ultimately keeping the ski resort open can no longer be financially viable. According to Dalex, ‘climate change is forcing us to revise our way of thinking.’

How are resorts combating reduced snow?

By creating it.

Snowmaking began in 1973 in Flaine, a resort located in the Grand Massif, Haute Savoie.

In the late 1980s two poor snow years led to a boom in snowmaking. Since then, ski resorts have been adding snowmaking machines in a competitive market. Snow guarantees visitors and money.

Snowmaking uses water and pressurised air, sprayed through a snow cannon to produce artificial snow. It’s a supplement for natural snow, not a full replacement. Snowmaking allows resorts to improve snow cover, especially in the late autumn to early spring season.

Snowmaking needs something else to make it work and that’s cold temperatures. As the temperatures rise, the available days for creating snow decrease.

You can only make snow on the cold days if you have plenty of water in reserve. This is where the local battle line has been drawn.

The Alps are drying out with 2022/23 France’s driest winter in 60 years. On the Italian side of the Alps the Po basin has just experienced a summer with water levels down 61%. It is placing a strain on summer water supplies and activities like rafting and canoeing.

La Poudre Aux Yeux – smoke and mirrors

Recently I went to our local cinema to watch the documentary “La Poudre Aux Yeux”, smoke and mirrors.

The documentary focuses on the current situation of the Haute-Savoie. It looks at tourism, development and regional planning, posing the following questions:

  • What is the future for this department in the face of projects carried out by politicians?
  • What dialogue is being established with citizens to prepare for a sustainable and liveable future?
  • How and for whom is public money used in Haute-Savoie?

I’ve lived in this part of the world for 18 years and in that short space of time it has transformed.

The most noticeable transformation has been real estate. Money is making an elitist sport even more elitist. Billionaires have purchased chalets, often flattening perfectly good accommodation to replace it with new. Each year more 4 and 5 star hotels replace affordable accommodation.

The local mountain community here has been displaced. They live further and further down the valley due to the exorbitant and ever-rising in-resort property prices. The result is spaces that rest outside of the public consciousness.

The lack of a year-round community in the resorts creates a space with very little opposition to construction. With no one to oppose the plans there’s a self perpetuating cycle that means more gets built. The result is that the ski resorts are building well above their legal quota.

I rarely go up to the resort in the summer due to the amount of building work. The number of cement lorries on the mountain road hints at what is happening further up the hill. It’s only when I go for a ski that I realise just how much construction has taken place over the summer.

In parallel, reservoirs and snow cannons have been constructed aiming to guarantee that the real estate retains its value.

As climate change increases so does the finance needed to keep these resorts operational. Millions of euros of investment are still piling into snow making. New ski lifts are being built, and new ski runs cut into the mountain. Much of this funding comes from the public purse.

This happens in competition with other ski resorts and even the other Alpine countries. It’s a race to become the last resort standing.

There is a substantial energy cost associated with snow cannons. A recent study found that the energy used to make artificial snow in Canada was equivalent to the annual energy consumption of nearly 17,000 homes.

In France, 25 million cubic metres of water are used each season to make artificial snow. 43% of French resorts use at least 100,000 cubic metres. In total 39% of the slopes in France now use artificial snow, compared to 70% in Austria, 48% in Switzerland and a whopping 90% in northern Italy.

Artificial snow creation is a short term strategy at best. With the world on course for a +2.9 – 4°C scenario, temperatures will soon be too high to even make artificial snow.

This is the backdrop to confrontation.

The ski resorts, real estate investors and the wealthy elite vs people and nature.

Zadistes [protesters who occupy a ZAD, a ‘zone à défendre’ or ‘zone to defend’]

The documentary focused on collective action and how local French associations have come together to stop the construction of reservoirs and new ski lifts.

One such confrontation has taken place on the edge of a ski resort called La Clusaz. A 148,000 cubic metre reservoir project was planned in the Colombière forest. According to the municipality’s proposal, two-thirds of the reservoir was to be used for the production of artificial snow. The rest is for drinking water supply. The drinking water was added as a late ‘play’ to get the original approval.

The film showed a group that occupied the forest to stop the construction. They were young mountain folk with all the ropes and equipment needed to create shelters high up in the trees. There were also at the same time five environmental organisations challenged the construction through the courts.

Last year a Grenoble administrative court judge delivered a provisional order in their favour. It stated that “the public benefit resulting from the construction of a hill reservoir essentially intended to ensure the artificial snow cover of a resort is insufficient to call into question the urgency that stems from the preservation of the natural environment and the species it shelters, with consequences that would not be reversible, at least in the medium term.”

A treaty to stop the production of more artificial snow facilities?

This might sound a bit crazy but bear with me.

After the film finished, Valérie Paumier, founder of Resilience Montagne, one of the five environmental organisations, took part in a Q&A. The session was run by Erica, a local from my village who has set up an environmental association.

After the Q&A Erica excitedly expressed the fact that every question from the audience had been in support of the film and the protests. I was a bit nonchalant in stating that I wasn’t surprised. Why? People get it.

The people here are connected to the land, they live and work in nature, they can see and feel what is happening. For generations their families were custodians of the area. They, like me, don’t need the science or data to tell them that change is coming. Climate change will transform our lives in this region, including the way we work.

The film left me questioning my own skiing. It’s something that I’ve been pondering since I had a conversation with Matt Barr on the Looking Sideways podcast. The construction and developments in the ski resorts continues to impact nature and biodiversity. In fact these spaces are no longer natural. They’re engineered environments, not dissimilar to a golf course.

The documentary talked about the construction of artificial snow reservoirs. They are concrete basins in areas of natural beauty with water diverted from traditional water courses. They impact wildlife, and people in the local area and further downstream.

This brings us on to the question of spending public money. Is it wise to continue the expansion of ski resorts and snow making facilities? Should we not be using this public money to finance a just transition to a new local economy? One that is more diverse and less focused on skiing?

La Sambuy, the resort I mentioned earlier, was able to close its winter operation as it had shifted the resort’s business model. In the end, the winter season only accounted for 30 percent of its annual revenue. It now makes much more money as a summer holiday resort.

This is surely a sign of what is to come.

Understandably most ski resorts are focussed on how to continue skiing. They’re in competition with each other for the money of the mega wealthy. That means that there are lots of plans in the pipeline for snow making expansion.

Humanity needs to agree to phase out new fossil fuel expansion. In the same way I think we need to come to a collective agreement and phase out the expansion of artificial snow.

For a sustainable and liveable future locally, and for those downstream, we need to invest public money into ensuring water for drinking and agriculture. This is where our future real-life battles will lie.

How long will we be able to ski?

The data shows that we’ll have some snow in the Alps for the next 50 years. This data though doesn’t take the particularities of the local resort climates into account. There is a big difference between “some snow” and “enough snow” when it comes to skiing.

Personally, I believe skiing as we know it will stop long before the last snow. Skiing in the rain and spending large sums of money on a ski holiday with poor snow cover is not for the wealthy. I don’t think it fits a lifestyle image of champagne and hot tubs in the snow. When their interest wanes, they won’t hesitate to abandon ski resorts and head for sunnier winter destinations.

At the same time, society as a whole will question if it is OK for the rich to go skiing during a climate emergency.

If governmental legislation is brought in to address climate change, it will only be accepted if it applies to everyone. France has introduced legislation that bans domestic short haul flights when the same journey can be made by train in under two and a half hours. This does not apply to private jets.

I believe it is society that will put a halt to skiing long before climate change.

What can we do?

This is a message to my friends and neighbours. As a community we need to collectively face up to our problems and to start the process of working through them. Only then can we get to where we need to go.

This process will not be easy but it will be much harder if we continue to place all our investments and energy in prolonging the snow. We need public funds to be used to create a future not to prolong the past.

Our current route leads to a dead end for humanity and the economy. Everyday we invest in this direction is a chance lost.

This area was built on adventure. We’ve been to the peaks of the mountains, and skied down their couloirs. We need to take that energy and spirit and put it into humanity’s biggest challenge yet. The next 20 years will define the future of this region and the future of our children.

We would be wise to diversify the income of this region, so that we’re not solely reliant on snow. This would help repopulate the villages year round. By doing this we’ll create new dynamics and new stories for our mountain territories.

I’m not suggesting we stop skiing tomorrow. What I’m suggesting is that we take a long hard look at our ski resorts and begin the process of figuring out what comes next. Then get on with the job of building it.

This is beginning to happening. Groups of citizens and associations are not only resisting developments, but also coming up with new ideas. The Re-Action Collective is a group of organisations that are working to change outdoor sports. Two of the member organisations, One Tree at a Time and Montagne Verte, are located in the French Alps.

One Tree at a Time is focused on addressing the clothing waste produced by the industry, which in-turn creates local textiles jobs. Montagne Verte is urging local authorities to reconsider transportation and assisting businesses in transitioning to a year-round four-season offering.

It’s now time to focus our energy and capital on adaptation. Starting this process earlier, whilst we have the capital available, will make it easier.

Thinking that we can defeat nature with snow cannons is a fight we will never win.