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Climate Change Conference Held in Napa On the Heels of Power Outages

by Kerana Todorov
October 14, 2019
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California Department of Food and Agriculture Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt speaks at Climate of Action at Napa Valley College. She was among the speakers addressing climate change at the conference. Photo by Kerana Todorov/Wine Business Monthly.



About 225 people gathered over the weekend for the “Climate of Action” conference at Napa Valley College in Napa, where thousands of residents were left in the dark last week after PG&E cut off power to avert a potential fire, citing powerful, dry winds.

Altogether, PG&E left 738,000 customers in 34 counties in Northern California in the dark, including Napa and Sonoma. The blackouts started Wednesday. All the lines had to be inspected visually once the wind stopped in state. PG&E, which is in bankruptcy, has only completed a third of the repairs that need to be done. The utility stated Saturday that power had been restored to all affected customers.

“I think it is fair to say that we have a problem with our utility,” said Carl Pope, former CEO of the Sierra Club and advisor to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But PG&E is not why California has a “fire problem,” Pope said.

For 100 years, the forest from burning the way it did historically – in frequent cool fires, Pope said. There are now “phenomenal” fuel loads.

“The cold, simple fact is California’s landscape was designed to burn. If there is fuel, it will burn,” Pope said.

“The problem is not fire. The problem is fuel. Fuel is the enemy. Fire is the friend.”

Pope urged the audience to stop relying on fossil fuels. Replacing the fuel-based power system with renewable-based system would bring the cost of electricity down dramatically, Pope said. That in turn would generate money to make the system resilient.

Transmission lines that now run through woods should be underground, he said. PG&E should also have drones and sensors to monitor its grid.

Paul Ullrich, associate professor of Atmospheric Science at UC Davis, and other speakers explained how climate change will lead to more extreme weather conditions, including increased rainfall, more heat waves and extreme winds. Dry regions will be become drier and wet regions, wetter, Ullrich said.

California’s rainy season is expected to be wetter while its fall and spring will be drier, he said. There will be more vegetation growth, very dry conditions, extreme winds, contributing to very powerful wildfires, he said.

“It’s going to have major repercussions for pretty much every aspect of California’s economy, social structure and ecology.”

Jenny Lester Moffitt, undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, a fifth generation farmer, spoke of her family’s journey in organic farming and sustainability at their walnut farm and processing operation in Winters. Walnut shells are used to create renewable electricity. The state has followed its own journey to fight climate change.

‘We have made huge strides,” Moffitt said, adding others are looking at what California’ climate strategy.

“Our sustainability journey is just beginning,” she said. “Governor Newsom is committed to this.”

The “healthy soils” initiative, launched in 2015 under Gov. Jerry Brown to help farmers adopt practices that lead to a number of benefits, including increased water retention and nutrient management, is now funded at $28 million this year.

Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp, sustainability manager at Jackson Family Wines, explained the company’s experiment in farming to sequester carbon in its soils, a project funded through the state’s healthy soils initiative program. Farming could sequester carbon instead of being a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, he explained.

The ongoing pilot project entails farming 22 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines at Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. The experiment entails manipulating six variables to increase carbon concentration in the soils of the vineyard, including experimenting with tillage, compost applications and cover crops.

Michelle Novi, associate director of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners, spoke on the trade association’s environmental leadership to go “above and beyond.” To that end, Napa Valley Vintners became North America’s first trade association to join the Porto Protocol, which calls for its signatories to fight climate change.

Speakers on Saturday called for more urgent action such as adopting the Green New Deal, a 2019 Congressional resolution to battle climate change.

“We need bold action here at home and in our nation’s capital.” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in a video shown at the start of the symposium. “We can’t cede aspiration to apathy. That’s why I signed on to the Green New Deal, a bold and aspirational resolution about the goals we must set as a nation.”

The symposium was not without controversy. Opponents to Hall Winery’s plans to cut trees to develop 209 acres for a vineyard in the hills above the Napa Valley floor, a project that remains in litigation, protested the organizers’ decision to accept the winery’s sponsorship dollars. “We should avoid dirty energy money in our campaigns and in our events,” said Jim Wilson, a project opponent. 

Democrats of Napa Valley president Johanna O’Kelley began to organize the conference about 11 months ago to bring attention to climate change. Saturday’s Climate of Action meeting was about educating everybody, she said. “It’s OK. It’s all good,” O’Kelley said, “Everybody works in different ways,” she added, referring to the early-morning protest in front Napa Valley College Performance Arts Center where the conference took place.

Still, Wilson looked forward to the conference. “We have to mobilize to net-zero pollution in the next few years,” he said before heading to theater to listen to the speakers.


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