Cultural Heritage at UN Climate Change Negotiations

By Victoria Herrmann posted 12-02-2016 10:51


The 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) took place between November 7 and 18. The conference brought country delegations from around the world to Marrakesh, Morocco, in an effort to move humanity forward in curbing global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Cultural Heritage and Non-Economic Losses

In my first post for the Forum Blog, I discussed the three pillars of climate change policy: mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. It is within this third pillar, loss and damage— that is, the negative effects of climate change that cannot be alleviated through mitigation or adaptation—that cultural heritage plays its most prominent role at UN climate negations. The 2013 Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage promotes approaches to address loss and damage including non-economic losses like historic sites, cultural heritage, tradition, and identity.

Credit: MissionInnovation on Flickr via Creative Commons

In the first two years of the Warsaw Mechanism, an expert group on non-economic losses was established to collect data, expand knowledge, and identify ways forward. That group met for the first time in September 2016 in Bonn, Germany, to discuss comprehensive approaches to loss. At COP22 the Executive Committee of the Warsaw Mechanism took the next step by approving a five-year work plan to begin in 2017. This plan will guide countries in formally addressing the slow-onset impacts of climate change, climate-induced migration, and non-economic losses and damage—including culture, historic sites, traditions, and identity. The document that lays out the work plan:

Encourages Parties to incorporate or continue to incorporate the consideration of extreme events and slow onset events, non-economic losses, displacement, migration and human mobility, and comprehensive risk management into relevant planning and action, as appropriate, and to encourage bilateral and multilateral entities to support such efforts…

A number of cultural heritage groups, from ICOMOS to UNESCO, held events at COP22 to better inform discussions about non-economic loss and foster collaborative projects to safeguard and empower cultural assets in the face of a changing climate.

One such event, “Culture on the Move,” focused on the intersection of culture, heritage, and climate mobility and on what becomes of historic and sacred sites as entire populations lose their lands. Panelists addressed the use of cultural heritage to facilitate the emplacement of communities and considered what culture can be conserved and what traditional knowledge retained when entire communities are displaced. Espen Ronnenberg, the climate change advisor for the Secretariat of the Pacific Region Environment Programme, offered case studies of climate change loss and damage in the Pacific islands, one of the geographies most vulnerable to a changing climate. And on Ocean Day at COP22, UNESCO highlighted climate change as one of the biggest threats to the integrity of World Heritages Sites across our planet, pointing to the impending loss of culturally and historically important marine landscapes like the Everglades National Park in Florida and Glacier Bay in Alaska.

But in addition to acknowledging loss, COP22 attendees also shared expertise on using cultural heritage to create risk management systems that build resiliency in vulnerable communities. During “World Heritage & Water After Paris: Cultural Resources, Protected Areas & the 1.5 degree C Imperative,” experts shared traditional water management lessons as a model for preserving historic landscapes and reducing climate risks. Samir Bensaid discussed efforts by the International Institute for Water and Sanitation in Morocco to build climate resiliency in rural communities. The institute is combining traditional water management practices with modern nanotechnology for water disinfection to help communities withstand environmental hazards and climate shocks. 

Building Bridges Between Culture and Climate Policy

COP22 had big shoes to fill, as last year’s conference was historic. In 2015 more than 20,000 people converged in Paris to advocate for, negotiate, and ultimately adopt an ambitious agreement built on two decades of work by the UN Framework for Climate Change. The Paris Agreement set countries on a path to significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement envisioned a world with abundant resources to augment resiliency and adaptation efforts on the front lines of climate change and a consistent flow of finances to help developing and least-developed countries lower greenhouse gas emissions while growing their economies. And while Paris— a high-level negotiation that established broad strategies for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the consequences historic emissions have generated—was monumental, the work done at COP22 may prove to be even more important.

On November 4, 2016, the threshold for the Paris Agreement’s entry into force was achieved—55 percent of global emitters authorized the agreement. COP22, then, was the first meeting since the agreement had taken legal force and effect, and it thus held the immense opportunity to turn the promise of Paris into action. The focus in Marrakesh was on a practical plan for limiting temperatures; concrete help for those on the front lines of a rapidly changing environment; and the breakthrough innovations that are necessary to build a resilient, equitable, and carbon-neutral global economy.

These priorities are crucial to advancing the Paris Agreement, but we, as a cultural heritage community, must work to ensure that the lessons and losses of cultural heritage play an integral role in international climate change policy. At the conclusion of “Culture on the Move,” Andrew Potts of ICOMOS noted that, as cultural heritage experts and historic preservationists, “Our job is to build bridges.”

Together, we can support the work already being done by the international climate change community at COP22 and beyond to protect historic and cultural assets. We need to inform the work of the Warsaw Mechanism on non-economic loss and damage with our research, best practices, and case studies to ensure that the importance of culture is reflected in final policy document. We need to educate ourselves about climate policy to know where and when we can participate most effectively. And we need to advance cultural practices that can help us become more resilient against those effects of climate change that we cannot avoid.

Victoria Herrmann is the president and managing director of the Arctic Institute and the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene.

#Sustainability #AmericasErodingEdges #ClimateChange

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