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A Preservation Response to Global Warming: Jumping on the Bandwagon or Leading our own Parade? 

12-09-2015 17:35

For most visitors to Amsterdam, a trip to the Stopera isn’t high on their to-do list. The omission is not entirely unwarranted, as the unlovely and unloved City Hall/Opera House was built after years of protest on a site that was once the heart of Amsterdam’s historic Jewish Quarter. Those who do venture in may stumble across what at first glance appears to be a modern art installation, but in fact is the Normaal Amsterdams Peil (NAP), the Normal Amsterdam Water Level.

The NAP is a fixed point established in the 17th century indicating the average level of the River IJ in Amsterdam, and has since been the basis for elevation measurements throughout Western Europe. Located down a short flight of steps, a large bronze plate indicates the exact level of the NAP. Above it rise three water-filled glass columns. Water rises and falls in two of the three columns, niidicating the current water level at the coastal towns of Vlissingen (the namesake of Flushing Queens) and IJmuiden. In the third column, water bubbles far overhead, a sobering indication of the height of the North Sea during the epic flood of 1953 which killed nearly 2,000 people in Holland alone.

A few things become apparent by visiting the NAP. First: by rights you should be standing underwater; Second: the Dutch take fluctuations in sea level very seriously. What’s not immediately evident when gazing at the NAP installation is that while the water in those first two columns rises and falls with the tides, over time it’s creeping inexorably upward, echoing a mean sea level in Holland that has risen by over 20 cm (8 inches) in the past century. And while much remains unclear about the future, one thing is as certain as death and taxes: Sea levels will continue to rise in Holland, and everywhere else.

Many factors contribute to rising sea levels, but global warming due to anthropogenic i.e., caused by us) greenhouse gas concentrations are a fundamental cause. Globalwarming causes sea levels to rise through a combination of melting glaciers, expansion of warming waters, and disappearing ice sheets. Since 1900 sea levels have been rising 10 times faster than over the past two millennia (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007,

Thomas Carlyle branded economics “the dismal science” in the 19th century, but these days, climatologists seem a whole lot gloomier than economists, credit crisis not withstanding. Most every climatologist is in dour agreement that a sea level rise of one meter or more is likely—the question is not “if” but “when.” Some expect the rise within many of our lifetimes, while others suggest it might take 100 years. Bottom line, even the optimists are pessimistic.

Of course, a rising sea level is just one manifestation of climate change, but it provides perhaps the most tangible evidence of a warming planet. Not that the global temperature data aren’t scary by themselves: Over the last century, the global average temperature has increased 1.3°F, with almost 90percent of the warming occurring over the last 50 years. More alarmingly, 11 of the last 12 years rank among the hottest on record since 1850 (IPCC, 2007).

“Global Warming” Catches On

After years of saying “nay,” the U.S. Has caught up with its own scientific community and world consensus, recognizing that climate change is a present-day reality. That’s not to say there isn’t still the odd hold out; Senator James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma stands by his famous branding of global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” At the other end of the spectrum, the government of Australia recently established a Department of Climate Change and has committed to a 60 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Despite the doubters, most of those writing and talking about climate change no longer feel compelled to prove climate change as a scientific reality. By and large there is an assumption that we finally get it, we’re scared, and we need to know what we can do about it. This awareness and attendant anxiety regarding the threat of climate change is perhaps the single biggest driving force in a new global focus on sustainability.

Companies are now falling all over themselves to prove their green credentials, smelling all the money to be made in being environmentally friendly—or appearing to be. This has given us a new word—“greenwashing”— and, of course, a new website to track the phenomenon:

Indeed, of late it seems that we are at greater risk from an avalanche of “green issues” (a la Vanity Fair: “The Green Issue,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance: “The Green Issue,” or even Elle: “The Green Issue”) than from drowning in a climate change– related flood. Suddenly, caring about the environment is in fashion (magazines) again. Alas, much of the media coverage on sustainability is a bit unclear on the concept, suggesting that the best route to getting greener is via the shopping mall. Just about every exhortation to “go green” starts with “replace your light bulbs with compact fluorescents.” (Fair enough, as long as you are member to bring them to a certified CFL recycling site when they burn out, as they contain mercury.) Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than changing light bulbs to tackle this crisis; despite what the ads tell you, the road to sustainability is not lined with hybrid SUVs, and may involve some old fashioned self sacrifice.

Enter the Preservationists

The preservation community has promoted a novel approach to reducing our carbon footprint—instead of building something new, why not take care of what we already have? At its core, that’s been the preservation movement’s fundamental contribution to the national conversation about sustainability.

Of course, the message is a bit more nuanced and developed than that. National Trust President Richard Moe has spoken forcefully and eloquently on “Historic Preservation’s Essential Role in Fighting Climate Change” (see his speech featured in the March/April 2008 issue of Forum News). The National Trust has launched a Sustainability Initiative, and Preservation magazine has had its requisite “Green Issue” (and a very good one, at that).

The National Trust is effectively promoting historic preservation as an intrinsically “green” endeavor, and an essential component of any strategy to combat climate change. This puts our movement in an enviable position; it turns out preservation isn’t just good for the soul (reason enough) and the pocketbook (ka-ching!), but for theplanet! Sure, we preservationists already knew this, but we’ve been coyly hiding our lights under a bushel. Fortunately, the climate change challenge is bringing out our best roll-up-the-shirtsleeves traits. Preservationists have put our shoulders to the wheel, gamely demonstrating that we are a part of the solution to climate change.

That’s good…maybe too good. Here’s the problem: For years, global warming activists were treated like the Henny Pennys of the public policy world. For years, the U.S. government’s position on the looming climate change crisis amounted to “What? That little acorn?” Activists have for the most part taken their new-found respectability in stride, demonstrating remarkably little rancor after long suffering the ignominy of irrelevance. Still, some of these folks must be a teensy bit cynical about the eagerness ofall their new best friends to help carry the sustainability banner after the battle for the public’s trust has already been won. That would be an unfair assessment of preservationists’ motives, but not out of line with human or organizational behaviour.

Crafting the Preservation Message

It might help deflect any suggestions of opportunism if the preservation community more clearly articulated how climate change is a direct threat to all that we value. Biologists, for example, learned to effectively communicate the looming climate change crisis by first documenting how some “charismatic megafauna” were at risk (it turns out the public is more moved by polar bears than lichens). Likewise other constituencies have studied and articulated additional threats: economic impacts, geopolitical impacts, public health and safety impacts…everything, it seems, but heritage impacts. It’s not a total loss: Many of these analyses address cultural resources, albeit unwittingly. From forestry analysis of global warming impacts on sugar maples to satellite maps showing impact of a 1-meter sea level rise on South Beach or Boston, many impacts are already documented. But, by and large, threats to our cultural heritage are minimized or ignored.

That’s a shame, for a number of reasons. First off, while most preservationists have long been dyed-in-the-sustainably-harvested wool environmentalists, there are some holdouts among us. Reminding the whole preservation choir why we must care about climate change would help close the ranks around this issue (of course, some folks will be irredeemable, such as the gentleman who exhorted “What’s all the fuss about a melting icepack! Polar bears like to swim!”) We have a lot of catching up to do, but we can benefit from the good work already done around the world. During the years of official climate change denial, preservationists in the United States were like East German filmmakers, largely isolated from an international community actively engaged in climate change’s impacts on cultural heritage. We are now actively engaged with preservation NGOs around the world, and the timing couldn’t be better—finally, the rest of the world thinks that the United States might have something to contribute beyond more gas, whether of the greenhouse or political variety.

English Heritage, The National Trust of the UK, and an innovative collaboration involving the public, private, and NGO sectors in 10 European countries called “Noah’s Ark” are just a few of the international efforts to address climate change’s effects on cultural heritage. Last spring (May 6–8) UNESCO organized the 1st World Conference on Global Climate Change and its Impacts on Structures of Cultural Heritage, and continues to document the impact of climate change on World Heritage Sites.

Clearly, partnerships and cooperation are key to any effort to get out of the mess in which we find ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we need to march in absolute lockstep with the broader sustainability movement. Right now, the sustainability message is resonating with a public looking for real solutions to a serious problem. However, preservationists should avoid the temptation to wrap the movement in green bunting like a bad Cristo project. We are on solid footing with our message that historic preservation can help fight climate change. We should skirt the slippery rhetorical slope that leads from “preservation is good because it is green” to “historic preservation is always the greenest alternative.”

The first statement is actually true, but we preserve for far more reasons than ecological virtue, and defining ourselves narrowly leaves us at risk of getting thrown out with the bathwater in the event that the sustainability ethic turns out to be a passing fad (a depressing prospect, but we’ve been to this rodeo before).

The second statement is, of course, false, and that is something we should all be able to live with and own up to. Measuring carbon footprints is complicated (just ask the folks hammering out new LEED standards). Inevitably, we’ll encounter situations where the rounding error is not in our favor. Being up front with our partners about where we differ allows us to work to resolve those differences and develop compromises that optimize public benefit. Papering over differences, on the other hand, can lead to dispiriting battles of attrition.

Consider the recent Bay Area legal fight pitting one couple’s carbon-absorbing, summer cooling bill–reducing redwood trees (or, more specifically, the shadows these trees cast) against their neighbor’s array of photovoltaic panels. Tough call, on the face of it, though the fact that the trees were there first might seem to be a factor. Not at all, at least in the eyes of the California courts. Under a 1978 state law protecting homeowners’ investment in solar panels, trees that impeded solar panels’ access to the sun could be deemed a nuisance and their owners fined up to $1,000 a day. Under the solar shade law, solar access trumped all other considerations, redwoods be damned. Fortunately,calmer heads have prevailed. A new law sponsored by State Senator Joe Simitian eliminates criminal prosecution for blocking sunlight.

Alas, while trees may now be safe, current California law still exempts solar panel installation from historic design review. We are likely to see more of this kind of well intentioned but ill-conceived legislation that throws historic resource protection under the sustainability bus. The preservation community needs to be positioned to advocate for preservation-friendly public policy, even when it means coming up against out green compadres. Our movement provides an enormous amount of social, economic, and environmental benefit; we shouldn’t lose too much sleep just because now and then preservation turns out not to have the smallest carbon footprint. Unless, of course, we’ve oversold ourselves.

Stocking our Response Toolkit

Fundamentally, we can lessen the impact of climate change, but we can’t avoid it all together. This suggests that the response of the preservation community needs to be multifaceted. We are already well on the road of demonstrating how preservation can help fight climate change. But we also need to identify and protect resources already threatened by climate change, and to be better prepared to anticipate how our cultural heritage is likely to be affected as climate change continues. Doing so will help assure that we have the right tools in our toolkit.

And in our emergency preparedness kit. For while climate change is slow, its impacts can be sudden and come without warning, taking the form of floods, wildfires, and a host of other calamities. For better or worse, preservationists have become adept at responding to a crisis; for example, we deserve to be very proud of our Hurricane Katrina response. (Whether or not Katrina can be directly blamed on climate change is irrelevant; the fact is that the type of damage sustained in Katrina is consistent with climate change, and we can anticipate more such calamities in the future.) But pride in a job well done can’t compensate for all that was lost. And it’s only likely to get worse. To repeat: Even the optimists are pessimists.

Is the preservation community adequately prepared for future calamities? The answer is almost certainly “no.” The grim reality is that this is a battle that preservationists, indeed humanity, may not be able to “win.” A negotiated peace might be doable. To get there, the preservation community needs to redouble our efforts on disaster preparedness and prevention (or mitigation, in disaster parlance). Proper planning offers the promise of stemming our losses, though will likely entail some painful trade offs. How do we ease the pain? By continuing to practice what we’ve always preached: taking good care of what we already have. And yes, change your light bulbs. 

Publication Date: Fall 2008


Author(s):Anthony Veerkamp
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