Best Practice Exchange for Cultural Heritage and Climate Change Adaptation

By Victoria Herrmann posted 12-27-2016 14:19


The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.

Over the next year, Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges (AEE), helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it. More from AEE on Preservation Leadership Forum.

The effects of climate change have no borders. Sea level rise, extreme weather events, and warming temperatures pay no heed to national delineations, cultural boundaries, or societal limits. Though geographical differences and socio-economics define the particulars of local impact, climate change is felt across the globe.

This is particularly true in the Pacific Ocean, one of the places most environmentally and socially vulnerable to climate change. Global sea levels are projected to increase three feet by 2100 if carbon emissions are left unchecked, with a recent paper doubling that prediction due to ice melt in Antarctica. Many inhabited islands in the Pacific region are only a few feet above sea level and face an uncertain future as the tides rise. One of those islands, Kiribati, is a string of 33 coral atolls where the highest point of elevation is only 266 feet above sea level. The state is expecting to abandon the island and relocate their entire population of 100,000 people in the decades to come. It already purchased land in Fiji in 2014 in anticipation of that move.

The Samoan parliament building located in Apia, Upolu Island. | Credit: Stefan Lins, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Although not all island states are experiencing forced migration due to sea level rise, Kiribati is not alone. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and territories like American Samoa are already suffering from intense hurricanes, droughts, heavy rainfall, and flooding. These changes devastate food systems, historic sites, fresh water resources, and important economic sectors like agriculture, tourism, and industrial manufacturing.

But where there are shared challenges there are also shared solutions. Encouraging cross-border cooperation through mutual learning and knowledge exchange can accelerate the dissemination of successful best practices, helping communities across the region mitigate climate risks, adapt to changes, and build resilience. Although America’s Eroding Edges focuses on the climate experience of American Samoa, my research partner Eli Keene and I took a 30-minute flight across the International Date Line to Apia, the capital of the Independent State of Samoa, to visit an organization already fostering this type of knowledge exchange: the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

Best Practice Exchange in the Pacific

SPREP is perhaps the best-known and most effective actor on climate change in the Pacific. Charged by regional governments and administrations with the protection and sustainable development of the Pacific Islands environments, SPREP envisions the Pacific environment sustaining livelihoods and natural heritage in harmony with the regional cultures. It has been working intensively on responding to the challenges of climate change and has helped many island governments plan and implement national adaptation strategies focused on integrating climate considerations into existing national planning and development processes. In the lead up to the United Nations (UN) Climate Change negotiations in Paris last December, SPREP strengthened the capacity for SIDS to engage in the negotiations, access international funding sources, and meet their responsibilities under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Bridging the national and the international, SPREP leads a number of regional climate change policies and programs that aim to highlight common challenges and build local capacity and knowledge exchange through forums that combine collaborative learning with capacity building.

These cross-border, collaborative exchange programs are about more than one-off education events. “Education is something that you don’t just approach, and you do it, and then move away from it. Education should be sustainable, should be continuous, and should happen at all levels, communities up to government levels,” Dr. Netatua Pelesikoti, director of climate change at SPREP, told us during our visit. “Education alone may not work. You must combine education and awareness with support. The problem with some of the education and awareness programs we deal with is project cycle. There’s one project and then we need to wait till the next education project comes along. So we need to bridge the ending and beginning timelines, or do away with it altogether so you have a sustainable cycle.”


Espen Ronneberg, SPREP climate change adviser, and Diane McFadzien, SPREP climate change adaptation adviser. | Credit: UNclimatechange, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The recent Pacific Roadmap for Strengthened Climate Services Workshop did just that. Held in Nadi, Fiji, in October 2016, the workshop trained national meteorological services and partners from the Pacific region on effectively communicating climate data down the ladder of stakeholders—from meteorologists and national disaster management offices to the general public—to ensure better disaster resiliency before, during, and after increasingly common extreme weather events. The workshop also launched the Pacific Islands Meteorological Services in Action: A Compendium of Climate services Case Studies, which showcases successes, good practices, and lessons learned. Both an in-person and a written exchange of knowledge of islanders’ experiences, the compendium “is only the beginning of more initiatives to help share yours stories with the rest of the world.”

Creating a Space for Knowledge Exchange

Islanders across the region have been using the water highways of the Pacific Ocean as routes for knowledge exchange for centuries, sharing folklore, agricultural methods, and medical traditions. That exchange continues today. With the advent of the internet, telecommunications, and modern transportation, Pacific Islanders are sharing, modifying, and building on climate change adaptation models and best practices drawn from a much larger, more international pool. Beyond the Pacific, the international cultural heritage and historic preservation community can benefit from the same type of exchange to encourage cooperation, augment capacity, and build local knowledge to preserve historic sites, intangible heritage, and traditional knowledge.

But today’s national and international climate change policy suffers from a lack of guidance, financial and technical support, and value imbued in the adaptation and preservation of tangible and intangible cultural assets. To address these shortcomings, a group of local, national, and international organizations came together in 2015 and developed an action agenda for preserving cultural heritage in a changing climate. The resulting document, The Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, calls “on individuals and institutions around the world to collaborate with existing communities to maintain and preserve cultural heritage” in the face of climate change.

While the agenda has created a loose and informal community of individuals and institutions working on climate change and cultural heritage projects around the world, there is no supportive network to connect all the projects that are currently operating separately. Each does effective work in its respective community, city, or state, but there is no mechanism for cooperation, practice-sharing, or policy action at the national or international levels to ensure all cultural heritage is valued, adapted, and preserved in a changing climate. 

The Arctic Institute, in partnership with other signatories of the Call to Action, will launch a virtual exchange platform in early 2017 to provide a best practice exchange for cultural heritage and climate change adaptation. The exchange will connect, support, and move individuals and organizations in the culture and climate field forward through a virtual platform that will allow participants to share case studies and best practices and network to understand shared challenges and opportunities in addressing climate change’s affects on culture, identity, and social cohesion.

The exchange will stimulate learning and adaptation at the individual, community, and government levels and break down cost and time barriers to in-person meetings. If you are interested in building this new exchange platform, please get in touch with Victoria Herrmann at

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.

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