people walking on street near brown concrete building during daytime

Principles on the Protection of Cultural Heritage From Climate Change

Cultural heritage conservation and its effects on climate change has long been an area of study. Unfortunately, barriers still remain.

Climate change threatens both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, such as historic buildings, archaeological sites, natural landscapes, biological communities and intangible cultural practices. All these constitute cultural heritage with outstanding universal value (OUV).

1. Value

Many values associated with heritage that contribute to its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) are at risk from climate change, including heritage sites at risk from sea level rise, coastal erosion and habitat degradation; species migrations; shifts in biodiversity; loss of cultural identities associated with particular places and traditions tied to them.

UNESCO has acknowledged both these risks and opportunities that heritage offers to address climate change through its policy frameworks, but legal interactions between heritage and climate change remain limited. Intangible heritage – defined by ICH Convention as cultural practices, representations, expressions and knowledge including skills as well as instruments objects and artifacts considered part of their culture that cannot be recorded – that communities, groups or individuals identify with as part of their cultural identity but cannot be recorded in written form is especially at risk from climate change threats.

Fatoric and Seekamp recently conducted a study on heritage and climate change, and discovered that most experts recognized cultural heritage’s contributions towards supporting climate change actions, with social, economic, and technical benefits that help preserve heritage while building resilience against its effects.

However, these benefits are rarely recognised in current heritage practice and that this needs to be addressed as highlighted by our research findings.

The study also discovered that of the 107 publications reviewed, only 27% explicitly addressed intangible cultural heritage and climate change; most focused on tangible cultural heritage instead. Therefore, interdisciplinary research must address all of the challenges presented by both heritage and climate change simultaneously with an eye toward intangible cultural heritage and its capacity to enable and foster climate adaptation responses.

2. Integrity

Cultural heritage serves as an invaluable store of knowledge that preserves human history and identity while teaching us about our past. Heritage preservation is also vital in meeting future societal needs; yet climate change poses one of the biggest threats to people and their cultures, with its environmental changes altering natural environments in such ways that cultural assets could vanish completely, endangering communities’ ability to uphold traditions while contributing positively to society at large.

This review focused on publications addressing climate change risks or impacts to cultural heritage sites or forms of cultural expression/folklore; only few studies explored its ramifications across different types of expression and activities (architecture, horticulture practices, work activities and recreational pursuits). There was also limited conceptual papers, reviews or editorials reviewed herein.

Draft provisions usually provide for the protection of TCEs/EoF that are key components of a community’s cultural and social identity and heritage, even if no longer extant but which can still be preserved through documentation or other means. Communities can include entire nations if TCE/EoF are considered national folklore that belongs to all citizens within that nation.

CH experts recognized the crucial role heritage assets play in maintaining communities’ sense of identity and continuity while helping build resilient societies. Heritage assets offer insight into past societal development as well as helping us understand current environmental and climate challenges.

3. Sustainability

Multiple experts noted that cultural heritage is dynamic and may shift over time, which poses a crucial challenge to cultural climate change adaptation measures as they must consider how this shift may impact heritage sites in an integrated manner and consider possible mitigation solutions.

Our findings demonstrate the power of cultural heritage as an invaluable asset in adapting to climate change, supporting community identity and cohesion while creating a sense of place. Thus, preserving different heritage is important for its future sustainability; yet many experts emphasize its role as an absorber against climate change disturbance.

As per most experts, cultural heritage is an evolving resource which evolves through interactions between societies and environments over decades and centuries, serving as an example for other heritage or landscape types in terms of adaptive reuse or transformation.

Although heritage integration in climate change adaptation is a relatively novel subject, research into this area is growing steadily as evidenced by increasing publications on this topic. Unfortunately, however, some limitations persist within this field which must be overcome as research advances like in gaming industry for websites depicted over the; studies may focus on one environmental driver alone such as sea level rise, precipitation or biodiversity and ecological systems as an example.

4. Accessibility

Though climate change is widely acknowledged as a serious threat, no comprehensive international normative framework for heritage protection has yet been created – leaving cultural heritage vulnerable to environmental hazards and disasters caused by climate change.

Due to climate change as an existential challenge, international communities have recognized the need to reconcile heritage with sustainability efforts. Initiatives such as adopting the UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2020 demonstrate this unavoidable reconciliation, with its preamble recognizing intangible cultural heritage as “an integral element of human diversity” essential for sustainable development (Article 11).

However, our current knowledge about climate change and cultural heritage remains scattered. With multiple publication sources covering this subject and few articles covering it within these publications, information on this matter is scattered widely, making it less accessible for researchers with specific interest in this matter.

One major challenge posed by climate change is its insufficient research and awareness on its full spectrum of effects, including on different types of cultural heritage. Temperature fluctuations and climate shifts may have an enormous impact on intangible cultural assets like traditions and practices, as well as physical artefacts like artworks or paper archives that depend on a certain environment for preservation.

To address these concerns, CHARTER provides an umbrella of relevant research and perspectives on the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage, and why culture-based approaches must be integrated into climate action initiatives. As a framework, we use the UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage as our starting point.

5. Sustainability

Integrity of heritage is at the center of climate adaptation efforts, yet protecting cultural assets from climate impacts requires research that yields insights capable of being translated into practical management strategies and recommendations for policy and practice – no easy task given anthropogenic climate change and its interconnections.

Most studies reviewed in this review focus on the effects of climate change on tangible aspects of heritage, with particular attention given to risks that will induce changes to material properties of cultural objects. It is assumed that cultural heritage objects’ value resides in their physical characteristics and that any damage done to these properties poses a serious threat to its integrity as cultural artifacts.

Few publications address intangible cultural heritage, primarily Indigenous knowledge and practices that may be affected by climate change, especially if human migration forces them into forced relocation or involves other human mobility factors (e.g. forced migration).

Though most studies examine the relationship between climate change and cultural heritage in general terms, only some consider specific drivers or changes to natural environments. Of those studies that do take this step, precipitation (including humidity and soil moisture content), water and air quality as well as sea level rise and temperature are frequently taken into account as factors.

Research in this area is fragmented and siloed, with most studies conducted under collaboration among institutions within a similar geopolitical region. This approach limits potential for wider, transformational advances that might foster global knowledge exchange and synergy as well as not fully meeting stakeholders’ involvement requirements in creating research results.