Outrage as French ski resort uses helicopter to fly in extra snow - but was it justified?

There was an outpouring of Gallic outrage last week, much of it wonderfully expressed, after it emerged that the ski resort of Luchon-Superbagnères in the French Pyrenees had paid E5,000 for a helicopter to scoop up 60-odd tonnes of snow from nearby mountains and drop it onto its slopes. With the regional half-term holidays fast approaching, and with only six pistes open out of 28, the leader of the local council, Hervé Pounau, argued that the chopper-assisted top-up was necessary in order to safeguard jobs and prevent a sizeable hole being blown in the area’s economy; apparently Luchon-Superbagnères depends on the winter half-term break for around 60 per cent of its income. Environmentalists, however, were unimpressed. Writing on his Facebook page, the ecologist Patrick Jimena likened the use of emergency helicopter sorties to “emptying a boat with a spoon as a tsunami approaches.” Somewhat more prosaically, the environmental campaigner Bastien Ho described the snow deliveries as “a short-term aberration which fights against global warming by contributing to it.”

With plenty of snow in the Alps this year, would skiers from the south of France who were planning trips to Luchon-Superbagnères simply have stayed at home if the Pyrenean resort hadn't been able to open for half-term? Or would they have travelled further afield in search of conditions like this?

Given what we know about climate change and its causes, it’s hard to argue with Jimena and Ho. There is indeed something profoundly illogical about looking at a problem caused by our warming climate – in this case a lack of snow at a ski resort – and coming up with a solution that involves burning yet more carbon. In 100 years’ time, long after tipping points have been reached and breached, it’s easy to imagine our grandchildren and great-grandchildren reading about all this with their jaws on the floor.

Then again, it’s also possible to sympathise with Pounau. As he has pointed out in his defence, E5,000 is a mere spoonful of seawater compared to the money the ski resort and other local businesses would have stood to lose if the annual influx of half-term snow tourists had failed to materialise. You can just picture him, kicking pebbles around a bare, dusty piste, imagining all the ski school lessons that would have to be cancelled, all the family holidays that would have to be postponed, then gazing across to the snow-capped peaks on the other side of the valley and realising that, for the price of a few helicopter flights, all these problems could be made to go away – at least for a while.

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And there are other ways in which Pounau might have justified his decision to himself. For example, he could have weighed the carbon emissions created by a handful of short-distance helicopter flights against the emissions that would have been generated if the skiing on offer at Luchon-Superbagnères had been so limited, come the hols, that many local skiers had decided to travel elsewhere in search of their February snow-fix. Skiers who have expended a lot of time and effort planning a trip to a certain resort, only to discover at the last minute that it has no snow to speak of, are highly unlikely to say “never mind, let’s do something else instead.” A few might, sure, but under those circumstances most will move heaven and earth to make a ski trip happen somewhere else, and if that means a longer car journey, or even a short-haul flight, fine. The snow conditions in the Pyrenees might be a bit iffy at the moment, but there’s plenty of white stuff in the Alps this year.

Many of the skiers enjoying the imported snow at Luchon-Superbagnères this week will be from Toulouse, 117km to the north. Toulouse has a decent-sized international airport, offering direct flights to Geneva, Milan and Munich, all of which are handy for the snow-sure resorts of the Alps. Alternatively, it’s a 500km drive to Grenoble, close to Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens and Méribel.

To some people, then, the Luchon-Superbagnères helicopter story represents everything that’s wrong with our consumer society, and in particular the way in which instant gratification is consistently prioritised over the planet. But perhaps what this episode really crystalises is how, as our planet continues to warm, we are likely to be faced with more and more of these damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios. Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, things that on the surface seem like the obvious, emissions-cutting choice might actually turn out to do more harm than good, and every now and then, something that seems like a gratuitous CO2 splurge might prove to be preferable to the alternative. 
While Pounau is unlikely to be remembered as an eco-warrior, perhaps history will be a little kinder to him than his detractors might expect.