Our changing climate is causing radical alteration to the earth’s ecosystems and the focus has been on the impact to flora and fauna. Less recognized have been the impacts that are wrought on our treasured cultural landscape. However, as the climate threat looms larger the discussion is broadening to look at cultural heritage impacts. Recently, the Cultural Landscape Foundation issued a compelling report highlighting the risk faced by some of our nation’s is iconic cultural landscapes.
For example, on the Eastern shore of Maryland in Dorchester County the Harriet Tubman National Monument commemorates the story of the legendary abolitionist. It was into this landscape that she was born, from which she escaped, and to which she returned many times to lead other enslaved people to freedom. It is also the location of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge designated in 1933 as a sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. Today although this landscape has been designated as a protected area both its cultural and natural values are threatened by inexorable forces of climate change. Sea level rise and land subsidence have caused the refuge to lose over 5,000 acres of wetlands since its creation. There has been a marked increase ‘sunny day flooding’ that disrupts life throughout the region. These rising waters also cause increased salination of the soil that threatens both farming and forestry and makes storm surges more destructive.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 2019 edition of Landslide draws much needed attention to ten examples of landscapes across the nation endangered by flooding, wildfires, regional drought, and other effects of human-induced climate change. As Charles A. Birnbaum, the Foundation’s President & CEO noted “Climate change is a widely acknowledged threat to natural and ecological systems, but the dire potential impacts on irreplaceable cultural systems and historic resources need greater attention and it requires action, now.”
It is also appropriate that former National Park Service Director John Jarvis wrote the introduction to this report. As the agency under his leadership rang early alarm bells about the risk of climate change to our National Parks and cultural resources specifically. In 2010 Jarvis called out climate change as “the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced” in 2014 the service issued Policy Memorandum 14-02, Climate Change and Stewardship of Cultural Resources. This included the following key points: “(1) cultural resources are primary sources of data regarding human interactions with environmental change; and (2) changing climates affect the preservation and maintenance of cultural resources”.
The National Park then published a follow-on report Cultural Resource Climate Change Strategy January 2017. This report detailed a comprehensive strategy to gather information, asses the impacts, consider adaptation and mitigation, as well as communicate the seriousness of the threat to the public. It recognized that cultural resources and the stories and understanding they represent play an essential role in climate change communication. It also highlighted some of the cultural resources impacted by climate change including cultural landscapes such as Point Reyes National Seashore.
This report, outlining a strategy for the park service to address climate change impact on cultural resources, was issued in January 2017. It was issued just in time, as the incoming national leadership made it clear it not taking the climate challenge to heart. However, these reports and other information are still accessible and the lack of action at the national government level does not mean nothing can be done. In the United Sates, individual states, cities, and many nongovernmental organizations are now picking up the banner of responding to climate change overall. See such coalitions as America’s Pledge. And in further encouraging news, there is a lot happening on the international stage to focus attention on climate and heritage resources.
What follows is just a sampling of this forward momentum. At a recent gathering (October 24-25, 2019) in Edinburgh Scotland, arts, culture and heritage organizations from around the world announced the formation of the Climate Heritage Network The organization’s moto is “Cultural Heritage is a Climate Action Issue; Climate Action is a Cultural Heritage Issue’. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is staffing this new network. This event was followed by the recent COP25 meeting in Madrid where the new Network released its first action plan to help mobilize the arts, culture and heritage community. Dubbed the Madrid-to-Glasgow Arts, Culture and Heritage Climate Action Plan, its release kicks off a year of culture-based climate action that will culminate in 2020 at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Arts, culture or heritage related business, university, nongovernmental organization or government office, all are invited to join the Network. This is a great opportunity for those interested in conserving cultural landscapes to weigh in and become part of this worldwide effort.