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Interview with Dr. Marcy Rockman

By Living Landscape Observer July 2, 2020

Dr. Marcy Rockman is an archaeologist with experience in national and international climate change policy. Her research focus is how humans gather and share environmental information, especially during colonization and migration, and she’s used this to address situations as diverse as cultural resource management in the American West and homeland security risk communication in Washington, DC. From 2011-2018 she served as the US National Park Service (NPS) Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources. She is now working with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) as Scientific Coordinator for a project to improve incorporation of heritage in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She also works with the non-profit Co-Equal in Washington, DC to provide climate change research for the U.S. Congress. Dr. Rockman holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, and B.Sc. in Geology from the College of William and Mary.

LLO: What is the ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group?

MR: Briefly as background, ICOMOS is the International Council on Monuments and Sites. It was founded in 1966 for the purpose of fostering and coordinating heritage conservation and preservation around the world. It is headquartered in Paris and now includes national chapters in 107 countries, these are known as national committees. It also has 28 International Scientific Committees and six International Working Groups.

ICOMOS established the Climate Change and Heritage Working Group in 2017 in order connect all of these different parts of ICOMOS with action on climate change that is most relevant for them, and more broadly mobilizing the global heritage community for action on climate change. Projects of the CCHWG includes (but are not limited to):

  • piloting methods for documenting World Heritage sites at risk from climate impacts such as through 3D laser scanning and making digital site models publicly available;
  • publication of Future of Our Pasts report, which is a major outline for the global climate and heritage communities that shows how cultural heritage aligns with major areas of action under the Paris Agreement;
  • and working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to improve integration of information from and about cultural heritage in future IPCC reports.

LLO What role can heritage play in adapting to and addressing climate change and How does cultural heritage preservation intersect with the goals laid out by the Paris Agreement?

MR: I’m going to answer these two questions together.

My starting point is that there is a two-fold connection between cultural heritage and climate change: heritage is affected by climate change and it also holds information and other capacities that are essential to addressing climate change.

When I worked at the National Park Service, climate change work was organized into four primary areas or pillars: science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication. Those two connections of cultural heritage to climate change (impact and information) apply across all four of these areas. I’m used to showing this as a big chart with four main sections, and with each section divided into two columns (one for impacts and the other information), but let me see if I can explain this in words. What this chart would show is:

First section is for science – there are scientific approaches to studying the impacts of climate on heritage, such as effects of drought or more intense rainfall. And adjacent to that, there are also ways of using information from and about heritage places to help inform climate science, such as paleoenvironmental information from bones or shell or landscape change from placement of sites or buildings.

Second section is for adaptation – there are steps to take to adapt management of heritage to climate change, such as monitoring for new or increased environmental stresses or taking steps to make heritage places more resistant or resilient to these environmental stresses, such as elevating buildings, stepping up maintenance, putting in flood protections, and ensuring the site is well documented and has disaster management plans. And adjacent to this, there are ways of learning from heritage about all the ways in which human societies have responded to environmental challenges through time. Key for this section is being able to ask ourselves- what do we see or expect as a successful response? How do we recognize stress?

Third section is for mitigation – there are many actions to take to ensure that the historic built environment and landscapes are part of changes in energy efficiency and transition to renewables. For example, as Carl Elefante has so eloquently said, the greenest building so often is the one that already exists, so making best use of buildings we already have is important for reducing emissions from construction. And next to this, there are ways to be inspired to create new approaches to contemporary mitigation through traditional lower carbon methods of land use and architecture.

Fourth section is for communication – there are diverse ways of building trainings and networks to share information and link together practitioners, communities, researchers around issues in science, adaptation, and mitigation for heritage in relation to climate change. And next to this – perhaps most profoundly, there is the process of developing stories and new understandings of ourselves and the present time from heritage that can shape, inform, and inspire action in all areas of climate change.

While these descriptions aren’t exhaustive, I hope they give you a sense of the range and scope of connections between cultural heritage and climate change.

As it turned out, the Paris Agreement also sets out four main areas of work: Mitigation, Adaptation, Loss and Damage, and High Ambition. High Ambition may be the most unfamiliar term here; it means generating the social and political will and scientific power to meet and exceed the targets of the Paris Agreement.

Having set out the eight areas of connection between cultural heritage and climate change above, it doesn’t take much more work to align all of them to the Paris Agreement goals. First, shift some of the networking aspects of communication to adaptation, and some of the capacity to learn from heritage from science and adaptation to communication. Then, keep the labels Mitigation and Adaptation the same, and change the science section to Loss and Damage and communication section to High Ambition. And that’s it!

What this final alignment shows is – heritage must be part of what the world considers as being lost and damaged by climate change. Under the 2013 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage due to Climate Change, it already is. But it’s important for the heritage community to continue to explore and explain what this means and how such loss and damage, which is not solely economic, may be addressed. As described, heritage has roles to play in adaptation and mitigation. And what I think may be most important, through the stories and creativity heritage holds, it has roles to play in inspiring increased commitments to address climate change, from the community to global scale.

LLO: How do you think climate change will most affect the management of heritage sites? Are any institutions, sites, or countries doing especially well at planning for these impacts already?

MR: I’d like to morph this question a bit to include intersections of Black Lives Matter, climate, and management of heritage sites.

From a practical physical climate standpoint, management of heritage sites will need to recognize that many environmental stresses any given site is already experiencing are likely to continue, but more so. Climate change is bringing changes like greater swings in temperature and more intense rainfall (and sometimes that more intense rainfall comes after more intense drought). New environmental stresses are likely to show up, such as changes in wind patterns and invasive species, longer droughts. Maintenance and ecosystem health have always been important, but they’re even more important now. Damage patterns from events such as Superstorm Sandy show that sites that are in good repair are more likely to survive shocks than sites that are already struggling. Repairing roofs, cleaning gutters, and keeping healthy soils don’t sound sexy, but in a changing climate they are more important than ever.

It is also important for site managers to keep eyes out for what is changing. Each heritage site is unique and how climate change is affecting or will affect it can be hard to predict. So I think careful and thoughtful watching is a crucial part of our toolkit. As is the recognition that we won’t be able to save everything. We never have been able to. So it is important for site management to have firmly in mind: what is most important here? What stories have we been telling here? What stories have not been told but could be? What is essential to conveying the significance of the site and the full range of stories it has to tell?

This is where I confess that for most of my time working on climate change and heritage, I had only looked at its connections to race and justice through the impacts side of climate work (see response to questions 2-3 above). Certainly places significant to Black communities and other communities of color will be affected by climate change, and as these communities are likely to be more vulnerable and in more climate-vulnerable locations, so too will be many elements of their heritage. And absolutely these communities should have key roles in decisions about adaptation and management of these places. But I had not looked closely at connections between climate, heritage, and race from the information side. Now, I see the connections so blazingly clearly. I want and hope for all of us to see them.

One aspect of climate change that I think does not get nearly enough attention either in the broader climate science and policy realms or in the heritage community is that climate change itself has a history. While the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement are phrased as limits of 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, we don’t seem to like to talk about what has lead to our current industrial levels. They didn’t suddenly manifest when we began to measure carbon dioxide levels in the 1950s; rather, they are the outcomes of centuries of intertwined technological, economic, political, intellectual, philosophical, and cultural trends.

In my research on how humans learn unfamiliar landscapes, I’ve looked closely at the English settlement at Jamestown in the early 17th century. Jamestown wasn’t founded on ideas of religious freedom like the slightly later Plymouth colony. Jamestown was founded because investors in London thought they could make a profit from it. And the reason they thought they could make a profit was because of what they thought they understood about the North American climate. They expected the climate at Jamestown to be similar to Spain, which is at about the same latitude, and so it would produce similar ranges of products. This was not the case. While there is much more detail that could be added, the outcome of this was that it was a group of men dependent on continued investment based on a misunderstanding of climate who formed the representative government in 1619 that has ultimately lead to our current government. 1619 is also the year the first slave ships arrived in North America from Africa; indeed, at least some of those first enslaved people were brought to Jamestown.

I’m not the first person to make this connection, and I apologize I don’t have the reference for the person I recently heard it from— the perspective that the environment is foremost a commodity is the same perspective that can set a person as a commodity. And the social and political approaches that come from that that see it as acceptable to sacrifice portions of the environment, whole species, and the atmosphere for the sake of the economy are the approaches that also set it as acceptable to sacrifice the humanity of whole sections of our society for the sake of the economy. As we’re now seeing in the Black Lives Matter protests, we are not going to be able to deal well with systemic racism until we recognize its deep history. And I think the same is true for the history of climate change.

To come back to your original question, what does this mean site management? When I was with the NPS, I set up a project called “Every Place has a Climate Story.” This project set out four themes (change in the material world, change in life ways and experiences, insights from the past, and origins of modern climate change) and a scientific storytelling method that were designed to help park rangers connect heritage, climate, and place in any park. I maintain this is true, including for heritage sites that are not in parks! While I originally designed this project to support interpretation, I think this can also be a useful tool for site managers to work through the elements of their sites that are most important for conveying their stories and, in so doing, identify the ones that should be prioritized for climate vulnerability assessment, careful watching, and adaptation.

In terms of examples of colleagues doing this well, I can’t say enough good things about SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion, scapetrust.org), out of the University of St. Andrews. They have been and are doing innovative and essential work with communities to hold conversations about values of and for local heritage and what techniques are most preferred to address climate impacts on local heritage, and then take action with those techniques. The Florida Public Archaeology Network is also running citizen science programs for heritage affected by climate change is working to bring some of the SCAPE-format discussions to the US. In another approach, the Smithsonian and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) both run rigorous courses in first aid for heritage sites in times of crisis, which is also valuable training.

LLO: Can you point those interested in learning more on this topic to key resources or reports?

MR: I’m pleased to say this literature is growing, but it’s still not nearly enough. ICOMOS is working on a major bibliography of resources, so for the moment I’ll mention just a few.

First the ICOMOS Future of Our Pasts: Engaging cultural heritage in climate action report(2019) is a valuable resource for major linkages between heritage and the Paris Agreement.

This feels like shameless self-promotion, but I need to mention the NPS Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy(2016) as it was designed for site managers and has some practical approaches for assessing vulnerability, thinking through adaptation options, and some approaches for site interpretation too. It also includes a major multi-page chart of climate impacts by type of cultural heritage (archaeology, landscapes, buildings, ethnographic resources, and museum collections). It is available online here: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/culturalresourcesstrategy.htm.

I’ll also recommend websites of Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England as they have published several major reports, guidance documents, and action plans on climate and heritage.

And finally, I pull Public Archaeology and Climate Change (2017), edited by Tom Dawson, Courtney Nimura, Elías López-Romero, and Marie-Yvane Daire, off my shelf regularly for inspiration in approaches for climate heritage interpretation and communication.

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