Why is heritage so important in the context of climate change?
Cultural heritage shapes our values and beliefs; it is a reflection of who we are and drives our motivations and actions. How we respond to climate change is therefore influenced by our cultural heritage. This may be directly through what we choose to believe and how we may or may not take action to reduce our impact on the planet. Or it may also be a positive tool that can lead to a better understanding of climate change and the actions we can take to protect ourselves, our communities and our shared future.
Climate change is not new. Our planet has warmed and cooled many times over thousands of years. However, anthropogenic (human induced) climate change (which we are experiencing now) is new because it is extremely rapid and driven by us pumping vast amounts of Green House Gases into the atmosphere. Never before has the planet experienced such a rapid change in temperature in such a short amount of time.
Cultural heritage can therefore provide a record of the nature and the effects of past climate change and other disasters, and our responses to them. It gives a valuable perspective on how climate change and other disasters have been experienced in the past by different members of society. It can provide an essential human dimension to our understanding of climate change that can complement data from the physical sciences. That can help us to understand the strengths and limitations of different responses to disaster and hopefully help us become more resilient in the future.
Cultural heritage is itself vulnerable to climate change and other hazards. Both tangible (e.g. buildings, paintings, or materials) and intangible (e.g. beliefs, practices and knowledge) heritage can be exposed to different threats and it can be lost. How we value our heritage and therefore protect or accept its loss. But these decisions should be made in collaboration with the people who live, embody and interact with that heritage.
Geologists say that ‘the past is key to our future’, well, cultural heritage represents our past and our future and therefore is a critical element of how we understand the world and our impacts on it.
Watch this short video explaining the connection between cultural heritage and climate change.
What does heritage mean to you?
Before we get into more detail about climate change and cultural heritage, the short video below shares a diverse range of perspectives on heritage. We invite you to reflect on what heritage means to you.
Heritage and how it is valued is personal to each one of us, it shapes our thinking and influences our actions. It is our toolkit for survival during the current climate emergency.
In this section we will explore the current climate emergency. We will briefly explain why current climate change is so important and its fundamental drivers.
Our planet is warming at an unprecedented rate, this means that as global temperatures rise our weather and longer term climate patterns are changing at a local and regional level. This has overwhelmingly negative consequences for people and biodiversity around the world. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a global body of climate change scientists) highlight that we need to take urgent action to reduce the worst possible scenario in the future. This means that we must reduce our Green House Gas emissions across the board from industry, to energy production through to land use and transport. We must also ensure that we take action to reduce the risks we face now and in the future – we call this adaptation. It is important that we consider both mitigation (reducing our emissions) and adaptation together when talking about climate action.
Watch this short video to get a summary of climate change and actions we need to take.
Climate change in more detail
If you are new to climate change, then let’s delve in a little deeper. The following lecture provides an overview of the climate crisis, the reason why we are in a climate crisis and some of the possible things we can do to not only survive but thrive. We cover topics such as adaptation and vulnerability.
Intangible heritage, such as traditional belief systems, are also a resource of environmental knowledge for future adaptation (Adger et al 2012). Archaeologists and heritage experts have benefited from comparing different cultural sites, focusing on the diversity of heritage sites, landscapes and traditions and what can be learned from such examples (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017).
Sharing knowledge of the range of impacts, threats and opportunities associated with multiple types of heritage in different geographical contexts is important developing effective frameworks for heritage protection and as well as community resilience (Fluck and Wiggins, 2017).
Heritage has been described as “all things to all people”. As we have noted hertiage can be tangible (e.g., buildings, sites, objects) and intangible (e.g., ritual practices, music, belief system). The difficulty tying the concept down makes the scope of heritage hard to define and difficult to contain within one discipline of study.
The disciplines conventionally associated with heritage have focused on the preservation and conservation of historical artefacts, sites, and landscapes. For example, in museums vast resources are dedicated to the conservation of historic artefacts; in national parks resource managers monitor impacts cultural and natural heritage at the landscape scale; and architects and planners’ monitor impacts on buildings and cityscapes.
The extensiveness of heritage assets require the concerted efforts of international organisation like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to evaluate and monitor heritage ranging from internationally recognised—World Heritage—to intangible heritage at the local scale.
In practice, organisations such as the National Park Service of the United States and Historic Environment Scotland are responsible for the protection and management of cultural heritage at the national scale.
Finally, we can think about heritage at the local scale; the scale at which it is lived, valued, imagined, and consumed.
In the video below, researchers involved in the CRITICAL project consider what heritage means to them. Note how heritage varies significantly between members of the project team. This can be explained by different personal experiences, disciplinary training, research cultures, and national ideas of heritage.
History of heritage
Modern heritage studies and World Heritage dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1945. Set in the background of destruction across Europe and Southeast Asia, UNESCO was established with the aim of promoting peace, intercultural understanding, and humanitarianism through international cooperation in education, sciences, art, and culture.
The promotion of culture and the arts was a reaction to the destruction caused by the conflict, leading to the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972 (‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’).
This convention sought to protect and manage listed sites with technical and management expertise from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, est. 1948), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, est. 1965), and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICROM, est. 1956).
The influence of the World Heritage Convention has been palpable – especially in Western Europe and North America – with a significant ‘boom’ since the 1970s. Since the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, with membership of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and attendance figures at the British Museum increasing exponentially—with similar attendance figures associated with National Parks and Smithsonian Museums in the United States.
Public attendance of cultural history museums and heritage sites remain consistently popular, with museums and cultural heritage sites topping most national attendance registers (see for example Association for Scottish Visitor Attractions for data).
In the last 10 years, increased attention has been drawn to the impacts of climate change on cultural and natural heritage. This has most recently been highlighted in the Future of Our Past report by ICOMOS (2019) and the acknowledgement of cultural heritage impacts in Working Group Two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report Six (IPCC, 2022). Links to these resources can be found below.
The video below provides an historical overview and considers the following discussion points:
What is international cultural heritage?
What role can cultural heritage play in IPCC reports?
How do we resolve issues of representation (power relations), a diversity of values (plurality) and climate risk (uncertainty)?
We encourage you to consider these questions as you watch the video.
How are heritage resources managed? What risks does climate change create for cultural heritage in both its tangible and intangible form? The most recognisable example of heritage management can be found in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972:
Protection and management of World Heritage properties should ensure that their Outstanding Universal Value, including the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity at the time of inscription, are sustained or enhanced over time.
This includes a comprehensive plan for each site on the World Heritage List to monitor, resource and preserve sites—including expert training for site management staff—thus achieving their safeguarding. The Budapest Declaration of 2002 recognised connection between heritage and sustainable development, including the necessary role of local communities in the management of heritage sites and the role of tourism in social and economic development.
Taking this further, the Amsterdam Conference on Linking Universal Values and Local Values recommended consistent local participation to enable the local value of place. This, in turn, recognises the importance of local values in the management of World Heritage Sites in what is termed the “fifth C” of the “Five Cs” strategic objectives from the World Heritage Convention: credibility, conservation, capacity-building, communication, and community.