The delicate wine grape has become our best early-warning system for the effects of global warming.

A journalistic collaboration on climate change.
April 26 2010 11:01 AM

In Vino Veritas

The delicate wine grape has become our best early-warning system for the effects of global warming.

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But laws and cultural traditions currently stand in the way of such adaptations. So-called AOC laws (Appellation d'Origine Côntrollée) govern wine-grape production throughout France, and in parts of Italy and Spain, as well. As temperatures rise further, these AOC laws and kindred regulations are certain to face increased challenge. "I was just in Burgundy," Pancho Campo told me in March 2008, "and producers there are very concerned, because they know that chardonnay and pinot noir are cool-weather wines, and climate change is bringing totally the contrary. Some of the producers were even considering starting to study Syrah and other varieties. At the moment, they are not allowed to plant other grapes, but these are questions people are asking."

The greatest resistance, however, may come from the industry itself. "Some of my colleagues may admire my views on this subject, but few have done much," says Lageder. "People are trying to push the problem away, saying, 'Let's do our job today and wait and see in the future if climate change becomes a real problem.' But by then it will be too late to save ourselves."

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If the wine industry does not adapt to climate change, life will go on—with less conviviality and pleasure, perhaps, but it will go on. Fine wine will still be produced, most likely by early adapters such as Lageder, but there will be less of it. By the law of supply and demand, that suggests the best wines of tomorrow will cost even more than the ridiculous amounts they fetch today. White wine may well disappear from some regions. Climate-sensitive reds such as pinot noir are also in trouble. It's not too late for winemakers to save themselves through adaptation. But it's disconcerting to see so much dawdling in an industry with so much incentive to act. If winemakers aren't motivated to adapt to climate change, what businesses will be?

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The answer seems to be very few. Even in Britain, where the government is vigorously championing adaptation, the private sector lags in understanding the adaptation imperative, much less implementing it. "I bet if I rang up 100 small businesses in the U.K. and mentioned adaptation, 90 of them wouldn't know what I was talking about," says Gareth Williams, who works with the organization Business in the Community, helping firms in northeast England prepare for the storms and other extreme weather events that scientists project for the region. "When I started this job, I gave a presentation to heads of businesses," said Williams, who spent most of his career in the private sector. "I presented the case for adaptation, and in the question-and-answer period, one executive said, 'We're doing quite a lot on adaptation already.' I said, 'Oh, what's that?' He said, 'We're recycling, and we're looking at improving our energy efficiency.' I thought to myself, 'Oh, my, he really didn't get it at all. This is going to be a struggle.' "

"Most of us are not very good at recognizing our risks until we are hit by them," explains Chris West, the director of the U.K. government's Climate Impact Program. "People who run companies are no different." Before joining UKCIP in 1999, West had spent most of his career working to protect endangered species. Now, the species he is trying to save is his own, and the insights of a zoologist turn out to be quite useful. Adapting to changing circumstances is, after all, the essence of evolution—and of success in the modern economic marketplace. West is fond of quoting Darwin: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives … nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

This story comes from the Climate Desk collaboration.

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Mark Hertsgaard has written about climate change for outlets  including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Newsweek,and The Nation. A fellow of the New America Foundation, he has authored six books, including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.