From the erosion of the Norfolk seaside to the inundation of ancestral desert land in Mauritania, climate change is already having a serious and often irreversible impact on people’s cultures and heritage.
Such impacts are one aspect of “loss and damage” – a term used to describe the consequences of climate change that can no longer be avoided, which tend to be heaped on vulnerable communities.
After the historic agreement on a fund for loss and damage at the COP27 climate summit in 2022, researchers met to discuss how to ensure the loss of cultures and heritage can be included in high-level climate discussions.
Carbon Brief was at the event to listen to the talks and discussion and has summarised the key takeaways.
What is cultural and heritage loss and damage?
“Loss and damage” is a term used to describe how climate change is already causing serious and, in many cases, irreversible impacts around the world – particularly in vulnerable communities. At UN climate talks, the term is often used by groups arguing for big historic emitters to be held responsible for losses incurred in poorer regions, which are the least responsible for climate change.
Loss and damage can be caused by immediate climate impacts, such as more intense and frequent extreme weather events, as well as impacts that gradually worsen over time, such as sea level rise, enhanced coastal erosion and the retreat of glaciers.
According to the most recent assessment of climate impacts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), loss and damage can broadly be split into two categories: economic losses involving “income and physical assets”; and non-economic losses, which include – but are not limited to – “mortality, mobility and mental wellbeing losses”.
Erosion, sea level rise and flooding are a major threat to heritage sites – and a major threat to vulnerable communities within our coastal regions.
Prof Kwasi Appeaning Addo, director, Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies University of Ghana
The loss of cultures and heritage is one aspect of non-economic loss and damage. Explaining the meaning of heritage, Prof Joanne Clarke, an archaeologist specialising in climate change impacts at UEA who organised the conference, told delegates:
“Heritage is all the inherited conditions, objects, places and culture, as well as contemporary activities, knowledge, meanings and behaviours that are drawn from them. Literally, heritage is everything that we are and everything that we want to become. So it is crucial for the preservation of society and social wellbeing. And it is increasingly thought to offer recognition to underrepresented populations.”
At the conference, speakers detailed how climate change is already affecting culture and heritage across the world, including in Ghana, Mauritania, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the UK.
Prof Kwasi Appeaning Addo, director of the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS) at the University of Ghana, explained how climate change is already affecting sites of cultural significance in coastal Ghana, including historic slave forts. He told the conference:
“Erosion, sea level rise and flooding are a major threat to heritage sites – and a major threat to vulnerable communities within our coastal regions.”
To illustrate the scale of coastal erosion in Ghana, he showed delegates images of a coastline in 2008 and 2021 (shown in the tweet above). He told delegates:
“In 2008, I drove on this road. In 2021 I went back and the road was gone.”
Dr Salma Sabour, a postdoctoral researcher of heritage loss from climate change at the University of Southampton, explained her work examining climate impacts in Banc d’Arguin National Park, Mauritania.
As well as being one of the most important fish nurseries in West Africa and a significant breeding site in the “East Atlantic Flyway” for migratory birds, the coastal desert site is also the ancestral home of the Imraguen people, she explained.
This Indigenous community is highly adapted to life in the coastal desert and carries out many traditional fishing practices, including blowing on seashells to attract dolphins, who bring fish with them.
However, sea level rise is already threatening the Imraguen’s unique way of life, causing their villages to become inundated with seawater for months at a time. She told the conference:
“Imagine seeing your village becoming an island for three to six months of the year.”
Dr Sophie Day, a senior researcher at the UEA’s Tyndall Centre on secondment to North Norfolk District Council, spoke about her work examining cultural and heritage loss from climate change along the Norfolk coast in the UK.
One place particularly affected by coastal erosion in Norfolk is the seaside village of Hemsby.
The village has lost about 70 metres of coastline in the last 50 years, with damage from storm surges and high tides increasing over time. In March 2018, the village was struck by a powerful storm dubbed the “Beast from the East”, which caused seven homes to fall into the sea.
Day told the conference she asked residents of Norfolk’s rapidly eroding seaside villages to explain what the loss of heritage from climate change means to them. In response, residents raised fears about losing a sense of place, sites for recreation, archaeology sites, churches and graveyards, and natural habitats, among other things, she said.
How can the loss of cultures and heritage from climate change be measured?
One of the major themes of the conference was to discuss ways that powerful stories of heritage loss from climate change can be properly measured and tracked to give an idea of impacts at national, continental and global scales.
Doing this will be crucial to get policymakers to take the issue of heritage loss seriously, said Clarke.
She told the conference about a study she was involved in that – for the first time – comprehensively assessed how sea level rise could threaten world heritage sites dotted across coastal Africa.
The research – which Carbon Brief covered in depth – revealed that the number of world heritage sites at risk from sea level rise in Africa could triple by 2050, compared to today. Sites at risk include sacred waterfalls, second-century trading posts and biodiversity hotspots.
Previous research by a similar group of scientists also mapped out the risks facing world heritage sites in the Mediterranean, ranging from the iconic ancient cities of Venice and Naples to caves containing Neatherandal artwork in Gibraltar.
Further work is underway to quantify and explain risks facing world heritage sites across the world, Clarke told Carbon Brief.
Speaking from the audience, Nusrat Naushin, coordinator of the loss and damage programme at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, questioned whether such an approach could be expanded to include sites of cultural importance that are not classified as world heritage sites.
As an example, she told the conference about a tree in Bangladesh that was considered sacred to those following the Hindu faith. The tree was washed away in a flash flood, she told the audience, with no authority or actor being held accountable for this cultural loss.
Another important way to measure and track heritage loss from warming is through IPCC reports – the most authoritative source of information on climate change, said Clarke.
As noted above, the IPCC’s most recent climate impacts assessment does discuss non-economic loss and damage, but does not explicitly mention heritage as an example.
Clarke told the conference that more must be done to include heritage in IPCC reports:
“The [most recent IPCC climate impacts assessment] does not evenly or comprehensively incorporate heritage into its discussions around loss and damage, even though heritage is fundamental to all seven of its central chapters: terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems; oceans and coastal ecosystems; water; food and fibre; cities and settlements; health and wellbeing; economics, poverty and livelihoods.”
In a discussion, Sabour noted that, out of the regional chapters of the IPCC climate impacts assessment, the chapter on Africa was the only one to prominently discuss the impact of climate change on heritage.
This likely reflected the personal interests of one of chapter’s lead authors, Dr Nick Simpson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, who contributed to the research on world heritage sites in Africa at risk from sea level rise, several speakers noted. They added that more could be done to ensure heritage is more prominently featured in the next assessment cycle.
How can the loss of cultures and heritage be accounted for at UN climate talks?
As well as discussing how to get heritage into IPCC reports, the delegates also noted the importance of ensuring it features in the burgeoning loss and damage movement making waves at UN climate talks.
COP27 in Egypt saw countries reach a landmark deal on a loss and damage fund following a 30-year struggle largely led by small island states and developing countries.
Speaking to Carbon Brief in 2022, Sandeep Chamling Rai, a senior advisor at WWF and an expert on the UN climate change non-economic loss and damage taskforce, said that the loss of cultural heritage has so far been neglected at UN climate talks, with most looking at loss and damage from a “monetary point of view”.
At the conference, Dr Hannah Fluck, an archaeologist working on climate change and heritage who co-chairs the Climate Heritage Network, said the organisation was looking for volunteers to help get heritage spoken about in negotiation rooms at COP28 later this year.
Elsewhere at the conference, Dr Nick Brooks, a climate scientist and director of Garama 3C, a small consultancy firm for climate change and development, suggested that countries should be encouraged to include risks to heritage within their international climate pledges submitted to the UN (known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs).
Doing this could be a first step towards quantifying global heritage risks in a UN context, he added.
This story was published with permission from Carbon Brief.
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