The link between climate change and cultural heritage

What’s happening? Rising salt concentrations are destroying 2,600-year-old mud bricks in Babylon and other sites of cultural importance in Iraq. The problem is the outcome of years of water mismanagement and climate change, which is making the country hotter and dryer while increasing the frequency of erosive sandstorms. (The Guardian)

Why does this matter? When it comes to climate change decision-making, quantitative impacts are often at the forefront of people’s minds – as they should, because the risks to lives and livelihoods, food systems, infrastructure and investments are substantial.

But, it’s not just the material aspects of climate change we need to care about. Long-term changes to ecosystems and extreme weather events are likely to result in immense intangible losses when it comes to culture, heritage and identity. These impacts are no less important – especially since they cannot be easily substituted or compensated.

Climate change is threatening material culture – Rising sea levels, wildfires, storms and other climate impacts are already threatening places of cultural importance such as monuments, heritage sites and landscapes in many regions around the world.

Low and middle-income countries, which are generally more vulnerable to climate change, are going to be the worst affected. A recent analysis of 284 natural and cultural heritage sites along the African coast found that 20% are at risk of being damaged or lost by extreme coastal flooding or erosion this century.

Western nations are not immune, either. In the next 100 years, UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean – like Venice or the Medieval City of Rhodes – could suffer the same fate as structures in Algeria, Cameroon and Mozambique. A report from 2020 found that 33% of the world’s UNESCO-listed natural heritage sites are directly threatened by climate change.

Non-material culture will be affected too – The degradation or destruction of traditional landscapes can also lead to the disappearance of cultures that have evolved around the physical characteristics of these places. An unprecedented wildfire in New Mexico, for instance, is currently ravaging ancestral forests and watersheds that have been used by Indo-Hispano villages for centuries for the purpose of house building, heating and irrigation.

In other places, such as West Africa or Northern Europe, slow-onset events, including changes in precipitation and vegetation, are making pastoral lifestyles difficult while threatening the irreversible loss of livelihoods, traditions, and languages of affected communities.

Better policies through recognition of traditional values – Understanding the link between cultures and places – and their intrinsic value – leads to better outcomes in regard to climate change mitigation strategies. Working with communities and understanding their concerns can also help find suitable adaptation measures and prevent maladaptation. Moreover, communication experts have argued that focusing on cultural aspects increases people’s engagement with the issue of climate change.

Lateral thought – As climate change impacts become more evident, cultural heritage could start to play a greater role in the growing field of climate litigation. In 2019, a group of Torres Strait islanders took the lead and filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing the Australian government’s inaction on climate change is violating their right to culture and life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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