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Stemming the Tide: Global Strategies for Sustaining Cultural Heritage Through Climate Change

On March 5, 2020 the Smithsonian Institution, along with other partners, sponsored a symposium,  Stemming the Tide. It tackled two sides of the climate crisis on the world’s cultural heritage – the threat to the resources themselves and potential value of these resources as a source of resilience to address climate change. The event brought together a lineup of inspiring speakers to empower cultural heritage authorities, managers, and advocates to pursue more ambitious engagement and collaborative approaches to this global threat.

Climate Change and Natural Resources

Since the 1990s, research on climate change and efforts to reduce its impacts has expanded and grown, linking many fields. Early on, natural resources were identified as both at risk from climate change and as offering effective nature-based solutions to it. National and international nature conservation organizations made tackling this issue a priority.

In 2009, recognizing the threat would be best tackled on a landscape scale, the Department of Interior (DOI) launched the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC). The intent of this program was to bridge jurisdictional boundaries across agencies within DOI as well as across other federal, state, and tribal agencies and private lands. The LCCs consist of 22 individual, self-directed conservation areas that cover all of the U.S. including islands, and parts of Canada, Mexico and Pacific Islands. One of the primary goals of the effort was to create “An ecologically connected network of landscapes and seascapes adaptable to global change—such as climate change—with the ability to sustain ecological integrity and health to meet the needs of society at multiple scales.” (For more information on the LCCs see the article on a National Academy review of the program in the Living Landscape Observer) 

Other agencies whose missions include natural resource conservation developed more targeted plans.  In 2010, the National Park Service issued a Climate Change Response Strategy stating unequivocally that global climate change was the greatest threat to the integrity of the national parks. The report focused on four integrated components: science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication, all primarily based on climate changes’ impacts on natural resources. 

Climate Change and Cultural Resources

Interestingly, it was the Union of Concerned Scientists that sounded the alarm on the threat to cultural resources with its 2014 report, National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.  Focusing on iconic and historic sites at risk from Ellis Island to the Everglades, Cape Canaveral to California’s César Chávez National Monument, the report  concluded that these sites and thousands of other face a perilous and uncertain future. 

In the same year (2014) the National Park Service issued a policy memorandum, Climate Change and Stewardship of Cultural Resourcesit outlined the agency’s response to the impact of climate change on cultural resources. The agency followed this in 2017 with the release of Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy  as the next step in implementing the stewardship and preservation program mandates of the earlier policy memorandum. 

More recently the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) released a report, The Future of Our Pasts:  Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action (2019),  that summarized the work of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in recognizing culture and heritage. The report noted that these documents gave unprecedented recognition to the role that these values can play in helping guide the world toward a transition to new patterns of living, production and consumption. The report emphasizes the need for the work of the cultural community to be both participatory and people centered.

The symposium, Stemming the Tide: Global Strategies for Sustaining Cultural Heritage Through Climate Change, is the next step in enlisting cultural heritage in our efforts to address our changing climate. As one of the speakers concluded “Culture is critical as this is a human problem and will take us as human beings to solve it,”  All of the speakers’ presentations are available on a YouTube playlist and are worth watching. Additional proceedings from the second day breakout sessions on the six categories of cultural heritage identified by the ICOMOS will be available in the future.

Want to learn more and make a difference? Consider joining The Climate Heritage Network a voluntary, mutual support network of arts, culture and heritage organizations committed to aiding their communities in tackling climate change and achieving the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.