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Grounded Optimism

After Jackson Family Wines’ Julia Jackson lost her home to wildfires, she founded Grounded to shift the course of climate change.

Photo by Jenna Alcala

Few things are as traumatic as losing your home. Like so many residents of Sonoma Valley, Julia Jackson had to evacuate her home when the Tubbs Fire ripped through the region in 2017. Jackson is a second-generation proprietor of Jackson Family Wines (JFW), one of the largest and most successful winemaking companies in the world. This was no protection against wildfires whipped up by climate change.

“Driving down the freeway, it looked like a scene out of an apocalypse movie,” Jackson says. “The hospital was on fire. There was fire on the freeway. I couldn’t breathe. It was raining ash. I remember thinking; We’re heading off a cliff faster than I realized.”

Before the ash had settled, Julia decided to create Grounded.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to catalyzing Earth-based climate solutions. “We have all the solutions to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis; they just need to be funded, scaled, and rapidly deployed if we want our species to have a livable Earth by 2030, Jackson says. “Less than 3 percent of all philanthropic giving goes to the environment. From my perspective, while other philanthropic endeavors are important, nothing will exist if we don’t have an Earth.”

Grounded.org is designed to drive investment in real climate solutions. And there are plenty to choose from; Grounded’s projects include regenerative agriculture to protect biodiversity, restoring carbon sinks, honoring indigenous leadership and land guardianship, amping up renewable energy infrastructure, stopping ecocide and philanthropic giving to relevant climate solutions organizations.

Jackson’s vision for making climate change ranges from the macros, using the legal systems to impose penalties for “ecocide,” to the micro, reducing wine bottle weight can significantly impact transportation costs and carbon emissions. One theme remains constant, how do we take action to prevent the fires next time?

(Hear Julia Jackson speak at the Health + Wealth of Our Planet: The Business of Fighting Climate Change event on Tuesday, September 20th at City Winery in NYC. Register here.)

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Q: The 2017 Tubbs Fire in Northern California was traumatic for thousands of people. Can you describe what effect it had on you personally?

A: The Tubbs Fire and the Kincade Fire in 2019 profoundly impacted my mental health. I suffered from PTSD after losing my home to the Kincade Fire and was able to heal through a daily practice of meditation and support from amazing friends and family. A few months after the Tubbs Fire, I founded Grounded.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to earth-based climate solutions, out of a sense of urgency, desperation, hopelessness, and fear. Ironically, I now feel more grounded and am no longer operating from a place of constant fear. I feel more optimistic that we can mitigate the worst impacts of this crisis, as we have all the necessary solutions to start moving towards a clean energy economy and drawing down atmospheric carbon. The antidote to my climate anxiety is action. Action, action, action. I used to work and then burn out. Now, I’m more purposeful about resting and recharging. The more I rest and care for my health, the more strategic, powerful, and impactful my work has become.

The fires remind us that the climate crisis is here, and it’s happening now. The McKinney Fires in California last month burned over 55,000 acres and killed people and animals in their path. The floods we saw in Kentucky, made worse by climate change killed dozens. This is an immediate crisis. And according to the latest IPCC report, we’ve only got 7 years left to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius and we only have less than 60 harvests left due to topsoil degradation.

What has the aftermath been like in wine country as a whole?

Wildfires are just one symptom of the larger problem—a global climate emergency. Obviously, the fires were devastating for wine country and everyone who lives in the region loves this part of the country or is connected to it. But the climate crisis is a transformational issue for the entire global wine industry. Winemaking is one of the most sensitive and delicately produced agricultural products—the temperature, the condition of the soil, the altitude at which you’re growing, and the weather all have an impact.

We’re seeing two paths: one where producers struggle, and a second where traditions and approaches change, and wine producers have to innovate. Today, for instance, you’re seeing wine produced in different regions and more explorations around varieties of grapes that are resilient to warming temperatures.

Ultimately, though, the fires showed us how vulnerable human beings are. We know from scientists that we need to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or we will begin to experience famines, droughts, extreme weather, mass climate refugee migration, food system collapse, and worse. This is already starting, impacting every product on Earth, not just wine.

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What makes Grounded’s approach to finding climate solutions unique?

Our approach is unique because we aim to de-silo the climate solutions space, recognizing that there are many amazing individuals working on solutions but that it is time for us all to come together as a united front. Grounded is one of many organizations that will be part of attempting to turn the crisis around. We have a role to play, but we recognize that it will take all hands on deck. Our approach at Grounded focuses on what we must stop and what we must do. We must stop our reliance on fossil fuels, stop committing mass ecocide, stop taking over indigenous lands, stop killing hundreds of millions of keystone species and stop wiping out all vital carbon sinks. In terms of what we must do, we have to start drawing down atmospheric carbon, regenerating and protecting ocean and land carbon sinks, protecting and reintroducing keystone species, implementing regenerative agriculture, converting to circular and doughnut economies, indigenous land guardianship, scaling up renewable energy infrastructure and putting way more money into environmental causes and solutions. We don’t need to terraform Mars; we must invest in and stay grounded on this planet.

A lot of our solutions have come through research and community-building with solutionists all over the world. We tend to stay away from geo-engineering and quick-fix solutions like carbon-capture technologies.

Our work includes Clean Energy Freedom, a national campaign urging President Biden to achieve clean energy independence using executive emergency powers. The national campaign is organized by veterans, clean energy workers, energy experts, artists, and climate advocacy organizations and has already successfully pressed the White House to invoke the Defense Production Act in June to scale up clean energy production. The campaign is now focused on implementing and funding this act, and on helping to secure the hundreds of thousands of pure energy jobs the country needs to meet our energy needs. We’re grateful to partner with the Department of Energy on this campaign.

The Jackson Family Wines’ wineries have taken a bunch of steps to operate more sustainably. Can you talk about your approach to things like water usage and power generation?

Jackson Family Wines is a multigenerational family business. It’s our family legacy. Even before I was involved in “climate activism” our family has looked at resources and our own footprint differently and has tried to exemplify leading through action. This includes land and water conservation, as well as how we power our operations on-site. My sister Katie has been leading sustainability within Jackson Family Wines, and helped spearhead our Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030 initiative, which made smart water management practices a priority and committed us to become climate positive by 2050, without purchasing offsets.

Like with climate policy and climate solutions globally, there’s no one silver bullet or magic solution—you need to try a lot of different solutions in concert.

On water, the company has developed and adopted the latest innovative water management practices in our vineyards and wineries. For example, we were one of the first wineries to use Blue Morph UV technology to clean and sanitize our tanks. This is a great alternative to using water or applying chemicals to sanitize. We created our own rainwater capture system to store rainwater in our steel tanks; we built a state-of-the-art barrel washing system that reuses water up to 3 times; and we developed a system of soil moisture probes, drones, and other technologies in our vineyards to get real-time data to measure soil moisture and ensure we’re giving each plant the optimal amount of water. All these efforts have helped us reduce our water usage by 43 percent since 2008.

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On carbon, since 2015 we have reduced our footprint by 17.8 percent through a mix of approaches. We built the largest on-site solar array among wineries in the U.S. with more than 23,000 solar panels across California and Oregon. I was very proud of that. We plan to invest more to provide more than 50 percent of our annual winery operations electricity consumption from onsite renewable energy. We are also installing a utility-scale wind turbine at our Monterey Winery that is estimated to offset 100 percent of the winery’s electricity consumption each year and provide additional generation capacity.

These are more effective ways to power our operations and they support our effort to decarbonize our business.

Ultimately, Jackson Family Wines would like to find solutions to completely decarbonize our emissions footprint that will be shareable within the broader industry. This is why we have partnered with another family-owned wine business, the Familia Torres of Spain, to co-found an organization called International Wineries for Climate Action. The mission of this organization is to create a place for other like-minded wineries to commit to those same goals of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and reaching Net Zero by 2050, and to collaborate on generating solutions that the global wine industry can adopt to successfully decarbonize. We are hoping that together, the members of IWCA will be able to offer a roadmap for decarbonization that the global industry as a whole can follow.

Reducing bottle weight also seems like such a simple move to reduce glass use and transport costs. Have more wineries followed your lead there?

Bottle weight is a big climate issue for the wine industry, and for any industry producing bottled products. When we first calculated our carbon footprint in 2015, we learned that a big portion of emissions came from our packaging, specifically the weight of our glass bottles. Over a quarter of our carbon emission footprint came from glass bottles.

To address this, we worked with our glass suppliers to update our bottle molds and reduce the bottle weight of our 4 highest volume bottles, including our Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which has been the #1 Chardonnay in America for close to 40 years now. For that bottle specifically, we reduced the weight by approximately 2-3 ounces, which was a 5 percent decrease in its weight. It’s really hard to tell, but a majority of that reduction came from reducing the size of the punt at the bottom of the wine bottle. We also moved to more recycled glass material, which now makes up over half of the glass we use.

Like many sectors, you’re seeing across the wine industry a move towards climate action and carbon mitigation. More wine trade gatekeepers have also come out in recent years in favor of transitioning to lighter-weight glass bottles. We all recognize that small steps like this can have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions, cost savings, and more. This has been a big topic at International Wineries for Climate Action as well. We’re having a lot of great collaboration and discussions with our winery peers, and our light-weighting bottle efforts have been a successful model for this process.

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As a family business, Does JFW have more freedom to make these kinds of changes compared to a public company?

Family ownership means we can be more flexible and think far beyond next quarter’s results. This is true in wine as it’s true in any sector, where different ownership models can give the flexibility to make changes to climate more easily. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have room to improve, or that publicly traded companies are off the hook. One of the most inspiring movements of the last 5-10 years is divestment and shareholder activism, and efforts among investors and consumers to make it clear that they expect action on climate.

At Jackson Family Wines, we want to be around 100 years from now. My parents founded Jackson Family Wines to last generations. Addressing the climate emergency is a big part of that, and while we have long prioritized natural resource conservation, climate change has also created opportunities to be smarter about our business, like adopting regenerative farming practices that build healthier soils and enhance vital ecosystems and biodiversity. As a family business, we have also been able to be nimble as leaders in the sector, including collaborative efforts such as co-founding IWCA to lead industry decarbonization efforts.

What advice do you have for businesses trying to walk the line between running a profitable business and protecting the planet?

The narrative that it’s one or the other, it’s “either profitability or the environment” is damaging rhetoric that’s outdated, myopic, and based on short-term limited thinking. There’s a saying I like to say, as I’m sure many who work in the environmental space have said as well. If there’s no planet, there’s no profit. There’s no more line – we must change how we do business.

Look at the wine industry: crops are changing rapidly, or even dying because of the heat. Climate change means that even if you can still grow grapes and produce wine, your yield tastes different and has a different character than even three, or five years ago. Wine is the canary in the coal mine—change is here. It’s happening.

I’m not really a huge fan of the term “sustainability” because we are sustaining ourselves off a cliff and sustaining business as usual. I’m more of a fan of terms like “regeneration” because we have to regenerate our values, the earth, and ways of conducting business. The good news is that your customers and your employees also want change. Studies continue to show that consumers are increasingly demanding action from business leaders and corporations to mitigate climate change. That makes climate solutions good business for the companies that authentically engage in this effort.

Additionally, there are many for-profit climate solutions. I’ve actually invested in some pretty innovative climate startups that are really starting to take off. There are companies that are innovating in plastic alternatives that are highly profitable. There are textile alternative companies that are innovating and becoming profitable through the demand of fashion companies to incorporate innovative and biodegradable materials into their manufacturing. There are plant-based seafood and meat options are also increasing market share. Of course, there are renewable energy companies that are really starting to take off and becoming price competitive with fossil fuels per kilowatt hour. The tides are shifting, and businesses are being created to solve the climate crisis that are generating profits at the same time. My advice is simple: protecting the planet can no longer be a secondary priority, or relegated to sustainability efforts, CSR, or charitable programs. Make an impact and environmental change like your life and business depend on it—because they do. If you lead, your customers and stakeholders will follow.

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How has your time with Grounded affected your everyday life? Do you make different choices when it comes to diet, travel, or shopping?

I eat way less meat than I used to. I’m more conscious about the products and brands that I support, and I tend to buy second-hand clothing or eco-conscious brands. I’m also way more conscious of the earth and spend more time out in nature connecting with trees, animals, and the dirt. I stay away from brands that are committing ecocide. Because I come from a family of farmers, the environment has been of deep importance throughout my life; my family’s business depends on a symbiotic relationship with the land to produce wine, and our love and understanding of it have made us successful. I grew up not only feeling a connection to the environment but understanding the importance of taking steps to protect it. The climate emergency and my own experiences living inside the climate crisis have only deepened these connections.

My advice here is really two-fold: First, we can all support brands and organizations that are taking steps to become more carbon-neutral. A little can go a long way here. By choosing to buy from brands that are producing eco-friendly products or trying to become more proactive about their environmental impact, you are using your power as a consumer to help improve the state of our planet.

Second, minimize your carbon footprint wherever you can. Compost. Buy your food from local producers. Opt for a reusable water bottle instead of plastic. Take steps to reduce food waste. Never stop educating yourself on solutions that address this issue. There are so many steps you can make in your daily life that will be part of the time-critical need for solutions.

I believed in making different choices from a young age because of my connection to nature, but the urgency of the moment has really inspired me to uplift and scale solutions in my own life.

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You have called for making ecocide a crime. Can you explain what ecocide is and who you want to make accountable?

We have the most efficient carbon capturing technologies on the planet, they’re called trees. Just this year, 16 million hectares of forests have been cut down or burned. On any given day, we’re losing around 50,000+ hectares of forests. We have to harness the law and stop this and the only viable legal framework that exists that can put an end to warp speed destruction of vital climate solutions like forests, mangroves, species, wetlands, etc. is stopping ecocide. The movement to end “ecocide” is led by Jojo Mehta and Sara Qualter, dear friends and colleagues who run the U.K.-based Stop Ecocide International. Ecocide is a word to describe what is happening to our planet, the mass damage and destruction of the natural living world. It literally means “killing one’s home.” And right now, in most of the world, no one is held responsible.

We need to preserve over half the Earth’s land to stay below 1.5 degrees in global temperature rise—and to do that we need to make ecocide an international crime. Why isn’t the mining, logging, exploitation, and destruction of huge masses of land a crime, like genocide? What we want is for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to create a law that would prosecute corporations and global leaders for ecocide, the large-scale decimation of ecosystems that sequester carbon, sustain Indigenous communities, and keep our air and water clean.

We cannot expect technology to reverse the climate crisis without stable ecosystems and a healthy biosphere. Criminalizing ecocide is a necessary precursor to climate solutions. The natural world is incredibly intelligent, and if we treat it with respect and a minimal footprint, we can turn the climate crisis around. However, outlawing ecocide is not enough on its own, in the same way that renewable energy infrastructure is not enough. We need a symphony of solutions and criminalizing ecocide can be one of the most impactful. I will make a bold statement and say that I believe criminalizing ecocide is in the top three most effective solutions to the climate crisis.

There’s a significant event, a global Walk to Stop Ecocide, coinciding with U.N Climate Week. I hope that is a moment we can educate people and catalyze global action on this issue. It’s an honor to be working with Stop Ecocide International and chairing the US Allies council to stop ecocide.

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You were recently appointed to the California State Board of Food and Agriculture. How is that going to help you affect change?

Food systems transformation is an incredibly exciting climate solution. At the local, regional, and state levels, our approach to food and agriculture has a massive impact on climate. I was so honored to be appointed by Governor Newsom and serve the State of California. I aim to use this position to advise on implementing regenerative ag and solutions around food and ag that can help us draw down emissions. I’m also here to be of service, to learn, and to grow as a leader. I’ve got a lot of learning and listening to do to best understand other perspectives and ways to work together with farmers from all industries.

Is there a plan for another in-person Grounded Summit?

We’re going to be very involved with the Department of Energy’s first-ever Global Clean Energy Action Forum in September, and in related activities to build support for clean energy and electrification to address both inflation and the climate crisis.

One of the most powerful ways we can be a part of the solution is to bring together the clean tech and clean energy entrepreneurs who can help us to create the million new clean energy jobs the moment demands. We may do that at some point through our own Summit, but for now, I am very excited about the Clean Energy Freedom campaign, and the community we’re bringing together to partner for this set of solutions and action coming out of the Biden Administration.

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If you could get Worth readers to take one action, what would it be?

Read a climate solutions book. My entire family are huge fans of reading and education. I’m a fan of books that aren’t doom and gloom but are proactively solutions-focused. I like to read so I always recommend books that have profoundly changed my life. I believe knowledge is power and the more you learn the more informed you are and motivated to act. A few books I recommend are Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation by Paul Hawken, We Are the Ark, Returning Our Gardens to Their True Nature by Mary Reynolds, The Rights of Nature by David Boyd and The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac just to name a few.

I’ve got a great team at Grounded so please don’t hesitate to reach out and join our newsletter. We can direct Worth readers to the campaigns and earth-based solutions with the most potential, and to the frontline, grassroots, and emerging leaders who need support and partnership. I want to connect everyone reading to a climate solutionist they can support in whatever way is most appropriate for them.

A shocking but very real statistic is that 2 percent of all philanthropy goes to environmental causes, and that’s nowhere near enough to match the scale of the crisis. A far smaller fraction supports frontline communities—the women-led, indigenous-led, and directly impacted organizations that have the answers. We need funders and donors to step up and commit more to solutionists across the globe, through dollars or deep partnerships that will help to scale and uplift their work.

Right now, we also hope that Worth readers will get behind Clean Energy Freedom, which has already pressed the Biden Administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to scale clean energy production. Clean Energy Freedom is a big tent, with a growing set of business leaders, solar and clean energy entrepreneurs, celebrities, activists, and solutionists at the table. If that’s not the right fit, we need help scaling the global movement to Stop Ecocide, defending biodiversity and keystone species, and more.

Any action you take matters. Recognize that you are powerful as a human being in your every day and that you can make a difference. We’re only on this planet for a short time and we have to steward it for the next generations. My father used to always say he was a “steward of the land” and I believe we can all become stewards of a better future.

Hear Julia Jackson speak at the Health + Wealth of Our Planet: The Business of Fighting Climate Change event on Tuesday, September 20th at City Winery in NYC. Register here.

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