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Napa Valley vs. Climate Change

by Tom McFadden

The same themes come up again and again in the public discourse on climate change. Weather versus climate. Prevention versus adaptation. The idea that cold regions may actually benefit from a bit of warming (Russian leaders famously embraced this idea, before becoming the “poster children” for the perils of global warming).


Great cartoon by Neil Wagner on today’s topic. See more of his "What on Earth?" strip at

All these themes are present in a recent article in the Napa Valley Register reporting on how local winemakers have responded to scientists’ predictions of how climate change will impact the region.

The reaction of the PR guy to the climate predictions is, in short, that the Napa Valley brand will not be tarnished. The last few summers in the Valley have actually been cooler, not warmer, than average. And if temperatures do begin to rise,  wine growing technology has always been dynamic and will continue to adapt. This seems both a reasonable data-based assessment, and an optimistic spin from someone vested in the Napa Valley brand.

But it also hints at a position you hear more and more often, even from frustrated greenies. Our attempts to prevent climate change are failing. And even if significant political action is taken, there is so much momentum in the system that we will soon have no other option but to adapt via technological solutions. A
recent article in the Telegraph takes this argument to an extreme (complete with a nice sensationalist headline about “Playing God”).

Yet technological adaptation is indeed critical. So much so that it is the very first paragraph of the Stanford study that the Napa winemakers were responding to:

Although governments continue to consider policies to constrain the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere, it is becoming increasingly clear that some adaptation to climate change will be required in the coming decades. The expected need for adaptation arises in part from the recognition that inertia in the climate system is likely to create continued climate change after GHG stabilization. Further, policy negotiations are focused on GHG levels that guarantee further global warming. While these targets are relatively moderate compared to unconstrained warming, they are not likely to avoid high-impact regional and local climate change.

In a recent discussion of this viewpoint with some of my fellow students, we decided in a fit of youthful idealism that society must continue to innovate on all fronts. Yes, we should dream up new ways to adapt to climate change. But it is just as important that we continue to dream up  technological, societal, political, and behavioral solutions that cut emissions and prevent the root cause of the problem.

So yes, winegrowers should be confident in their ability to innovate and adapt to a changing climate. But they should also be striving to reduce their own environmental impact, and lessen the size of the problem they will soon be forced to solve.

[And just in case you need a quick refresher on weather vs. climate, see
this video.]

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