Climate breakdown puts heritage sites in jeopardy

Around the world, experts are sounding the alarm about the threat the climate emergency poses to our cultural heritage.  But the sector also has a wealth of untapped expertise it can contribute to the environmental agenda
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Later this month, world leaders will gather in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit, to which they have been asked to bring concrete, ambitious plans for reducing carbon emissions. The summit will be the focus of a huge international movement, with a global strike planned on 20 September calling on governments to take urgent climate action.  
In advance of the summit, the international heritage community has been making efforts to ensure that cultural heritage is on the climate agenda. Several pieces of research published in recent months have highlighted the threat that the emergency poses to the world’s monuments, museums and archaeological sites, and the role that cultural heritage can play in tackling the crisis.  
 
Poorly researched 
The impacts that climate destabilisation will have on world heritage are poorly researched in comparison with other areas, says Christos Zerefos, the head of the Research Center for Atmospheric Physics and Climatology in Athens. Zerefos outlined some of these threats at a recent conference in Athens that brought cultural heritage and climate experts together to discuss the issue.  
 
“Climate change has not been studied in depth as a factor that would affect our monuments and cultural heritage,” he says. “We have no measures and indices that relate to the degradation of monuments.”   
Internationally, many heritage sites are unprepared for the changes to come – it was reported recently that Venice, a Unesco World Heritage Site with a well-recognised flooding risk, has no official strategy to deal with the climate crisis.  
Submerged and coastal heritage sites are at particular risk, says Zerefos, with rising sea levels combined with increased ocean acidity and saltwater flooding posing a severe threat. In addition, the increasing unpredictability of the weather is a danger to exposed heritage, particularly in countries such as Greece and Italy, which have a lot of open-air sites.  
“Monuments are threatened by harsh weather, strong winds and rain,” says Zerefos, citing the example of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, in Athens, which lost a column during a storm in 1852. Such freak weather events will become more common as climate breakdown intensifies, he says – and many historic sites were not constructed to bear such strain. “They were built with the knowledge that they may need to withstand a flood no more than once every 200 years,” Zerefos says.   
Environmental viability 
The increasing likelihood of extreme events such as flooding and wildfires pose obvious dangers. But air pollution linked to the weather, and the day-to-day variability of the climate, are also risk factors. 
“In the past few days, the weather here in Athens has changed from cold to hot and back to cold," explains Zerefos. "This larger variability of environmental stress has its own impact on monuments.” 
Increased wear and tear is already having a bearing on how some ancient monuments are managed. “The walls of the Parthenon used to be washed by specialists every few years to prevent algae growing – now it’s every year. Photosynthesis operates faster in warmer weather as there’s more humidity at night. These plants are doing damage.” 
Zerefos also highlights the importance of protecting museum collections from atmospheric changes. “Many are already protected from environmental changes, but how can we protect them from an atmosphere that is showing rates of change that we have not seen before?” 
Mobilising action 
A report published this summer by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) aims to mobilise the international heritage community to address these issues – highlighting what it describes as the “absence of cultural heritage from the climate discourse”.  
The Future of Our Pasts report outlines ways in which cultural heritage can intersect with the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement and describes how heritage practice might need to “adjust its aims and methodologies” to mitigate and adapt to these challenges.  
The report’s main focus, however, is promoting the “immense and virtually untapped potential” that the heritage sector has to help communities transition, build resilience and promote sustainable development. It highlights the “thousands of archaeologists, architects, historians and engineers, scientists, researchers, teachers and scholars, carriers of indigenous knowledge and local knowledge” whose talents have yet to be mobilised.   
Positive approach 
Having a positive narrative is vital to the heritage sector’s approach, agrees Hannah Fluck, the head of environmental research at Historic England. “No one is going to listen if you just say everything’s under threat,” she says. “What we’re saying is that we can use heritage to help us adapt.” 
At Historic England, for example, recent research has produced evidence on the sustainability and durability of traditional building materials such as lime mortar, and shown that older buildings are better able to withstand flooding and damp than those built from more modern materials.  
The long-term perspective of heritage professionals is also an advantage, Fluck says. “Understanding the history of our landscape and how people have shaped it will affect how we can change in the future,” she says. “We can see how past settlements came and went, what failed and what didn’t. People think technology is going to save us, but the real solutions could already be staring us in the face.” 
Though most UK professionals would say there’s a lot more work to do here to engage with climate issues, our heritage sector is seen as a frontrunner worldwide. This is particularly true of Scotland, which is being lined up to host the UN’s international climate change summit, COP26, in 2020. This year, Scotland became one of the first countries in the world to pilot a tool produced by Unesco for measuring climate risk at its world heritage sites.  
The Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) was trialled at Orkney’s archaeological sites, which comprise the Neolithic village Skara Brae and a range of standing stones and monuments. The findings, which were presented to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee session in Baku, Azerbaijan, over the summer, showed that the site is in the highest-risk category for climate impact.  
Coastal erosion, storms and increased rainfall are particular threats – data shows that rainfall in the area has increased by 20% over the past 50 years, and winter rainfall by 70%, while the sea level is projected to rise by as much as a metre by the end of the century. On a day-to-day level, maintenance costs are rising in response to increased vegetation and a longer growing season.  
The findings didn’t come as a surprise, says Ewan Hyslop, the head of technical research and science at Historic Environment Scotland, which had already carried out climate risk assessments at all of its sites.  
“Where we sit on the globe, we’re exposed to the elements. We were aware that something was going on and that we’re at the start of something very significant,” he says. “These aren’t new impacts, but climate change is an accelerator of existing impacts.” 
 
Assessing impact 
The CVI examined the physical risks and the community’s vulnerability in terms of economic, cultural and social impact, bringing heritage experts together with representatives from the local area in a series of workshops. Interestingly, it found that community vulnerability was less severe. “It showed that the Orkney community has a high level of adaptability to threat,” says Hyslop.  
Since the findings were presented in Baku, there’s been a huge amount of international interest in the CVI. “It’s been picked up by lots of people – I think it’s going to get some traction,” says Hyslop. “That was our aim in doing it, to support the process.” 
Conducting the CVI has enabled Historic Environment Scotland to prioritise resources to address these vulnerabilities, he adds. The agency plans to use the tool at Scotland’s five other World Heritage Sites, with Edinburgh Castle next on the list. It is also developing a mini CVI to use at its smaller properties.  
Difficult questions 
Understanding these impacts raises difficult questions for the heritage sector, however. Many heritage professionals now acknowledge that not everything can be saved – and that this is an issue that will require a sensitive approach. “We are recognising that consequences will sometimes include loss, and it's about approaching it in a managed way,” says Fluck. “We need to engage the public in that conversation. We’ve been very bad at it so far.”  
Other questions include the extent to which archaeological sites should be excavated, generating new collections that will add to the sector’s environmental impact. And measures taken to mitigate the damage come with consequences of their own. “If we protect coastal sites by pouring in lots of concrete, that also has a carbon footprint,” says Fluck.  
The sector is slowly starting to grapple with these issues. Next month, a global network for heritage professionals, the Climate Heritage Network, will launch in Edinburgh with the aim of bringing together this burgeoning area of practice. The network will encourage culture and heritage representatives to “help the communities they work in to deliver on the ambitions of the Paris Agreement”.  
“This is the biggest thing that any of us are going to face and it needs to get into the headlights now or we’ll be caught out,” says Hyslop. “There’s a real opportunity for the heritage sector to show what we can do.”  
  • The theme of this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, 3-5 October, is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World

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