Cultural heritage offers immense and virtually untapped potential to drive climate action and support ethical and equitable transitions by communities towards low carbon, climate resilient development pathways. Realizing that potential, however, requires both better recognition of the cultural dimensions of climate change and adjusting the aims and methodologies of heritage practice. 

Achieving the Paris Agreement’s ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said. Better addressing the ways in which cultural heritage is both impacted by climate change and a source of resilience for communities would increase the ambition for – and effectiveness of – transformative change, the ICOMOS report released Wednesday concluded.

The ‘Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action’ report was released by ICOMOS on Wednesday 3rd June 2019 in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan at an event held during the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee. 

Twenty-eight ICOMOS members representing 19 countries served as lead and contributing authors for the report. Eleven ICOMOS international scientific committees and 21 ICOMOS national committees provided feedback.  In addition, almost 50 invited experts provided peer review.

The ‘Future of Our Pasts’ report was prepared under the scientific leadership of ICOMOS’s Climate Change and Heritage Working Group.  The ICOMOS Triennial General Assembly held in 2017 in New Delhi, India adopted Resolution 19GA 2017/30 entitled ‘Mobilizing ICOMOS and the Cultural Heritage Community To Help Meet the Challenge of Climate.’  The Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group was formed in order to further the resolution’s ambitious aims.

The report highlights a number of ways in which the core considerations of cultural heritage intersect with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement, including heightening ambition to address climate change, mitigating greenhouse gases, enhancing adaptive capacity, and planning for loss and damage.

At the same time, climate change is already impacting communities and heritage globally, and these trends are rapidly worsening. The report provides a framework for systematically cataloguing the impacts of climate change drivers on six main categories of cultural heritage, in order to aid in evaluating an managing both climate risks to cultural heritage and the positive role it can play as a source of resilience.

Given the nature and scale of climate impacts, the report concludes that how we conceive of heritage and how we manage it will require updating. New, multi-disciplinary approaches will be required in areas such as heritage documentation, disaster risk reduction, vulnerability assessment, conservation, education and training as well as in the ways heritage sites are presented to visitors.

‘The climate is changing and so must heritage. It would be foolish to imagine the practice of heritage remaining static while the world goes through the rapid and far-reaching transitions

discussed in the IPCC’s recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C,’ said Professor Toshiyuku Kono, President of ICOMOS.

ICOMOS initially plans to use the report to organize its inputs into a proposed update of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s 2007 Policy Document on the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage sites, to develop a roadmap for heritage organisations to engage on climate change issues, and to organise outreach to the scientific community on research gaps and opportunities.

Beyond these immediate programmatic uses, ICOMOS hopes the report will feed the new interdisciplinary #ClimateHeritage movement that has begun to blossom including:

  • Supporting shifts in heritage approaches and methodologies necessitated by Climate Change. 
  • Providing a benchmark against with heritage actors may measure their engagement with climate change.
  • For climate activists and policy-makers, increasing their understanding of and engagement with cultural heritage. 
  • Stimulating attention to existing research gaps and opportunities for collaboration with scientists and scholars on the intersections of climate change and cultural heritage.