Hot planet, cool athletes

Call an assembly in your typical high school and you're more likely to find kids joking, talking, and texting than paying attention. And if the presentation covers a doomsday subject like global warming? You might see a few of them sleeping.

But add in a high-profile winter-sports celebrity like Gretchen Bleiler or Jeremy Jones, and you'll probably score a rapt audience.

That's the hook behind Protect Our Winters' Hot Planet, Cool Athletes program: capitalizing on the charisma of top snowboard and ski athletes to urge the next generation to take lasting, collective actions to combat climate change.

The program has reached over 3,500 students so far, many during the lead up to the 2011 Winter X, when Gretchen Bleiler, Nate Holland, Seth Wescott and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa spoke at high schools across Colorado. POW hopes to reach 10,000 students by the end of 2011. So far Jeremy Jones, Kaitlyn Farrington, Chanelle Sladics, and Forrest Shearer have signed on to give the presentation.

"These guys are such icons, and when they walk into the classroom kids listen," explains POW Executive Director Chris Steinkamp. "Climate change is being taught in science class effectively for sure, but when someone like Gretchen Blieler walks into the classroom, these students listen. Our hope is that they listen so well that they will actually be inspired to go out and do something."

Ralph Backstrom,who took second at the Kirkwood The North Face Masters this past weekend, recently gave the Hot Planet, Cool Athletes presentation in Reno.

"Professional athletes are looked up to by youngsters, so I feel like getting them to think about important issues such as climate change, and letting them know what they can do to get involved is a positive contribution to society that I can make," says Backstrom. "I think that it's extremely important to educate our youth, because they are an extremely powerful group of humans that are capable of changing our current course."

The presentation itself is a customized version of the widely-acclaimed animated multimedia presentation that was created by Alliance For Climate Education, and has been viewed by more than 600,000 high school students since 2009. Covering climate science basics, POW's version is tuned to mountain communities and the impact of global warming on snow sports, which allows mountain athletes like Backstrom to easily insert their own experiences.

In Backstrom's case, students watch a quick video edit of the Squaw Valley local, and then hear about his experiences witnessing the effects of climate change in places like Antarctica, the Pacific North West, and at home in the Sierras. It's an approach that POW hopes will help the message go just a bit further.

"We want students to go home and change their light bulbs and turn off their appliances at night," says Steinkamp, "but the big idea here is that 'you guys are a generation, we want you to mobilize as one, and treat climate change as something that you can solve together.'"

Steinkamp says that most of the athletes that have given the presentation are eager to do it again.

"What I would really like to happen is have around 20 kids come up to me over the course of the program after a presentation and let me know that they relate to me in that they love snow, and that they want to make a difference," says Backstrom. "I want these kids to realize that they have a lot of power, and they really can make big changes that affect us all."