This major new report holds a number of firsts for the sector. It is the first ever to explore both intangible and tangible cultural heritage linked to climate change, it covers an unparalleled range and breath of research, and it includes hazard diagrams and trends analysis which will help to support our heritage and climate work going forward.

The intention is to provide information on the current state of knowledge on the climate change and cultural heritage nexus, and more specifically on trends in academic research (peer reviewed publications) and the main concerns and practical responses at the international donor and institutional levels (grey literature publications and reports). 

Climate change impacts on cultural heritage are considered at international, regional, national, and local levels by means of a comprehensive systematic review of the international literature, evidence, research, and, when practicable, policies.  This review and its accompanying graphics will be a tool to assist the British Council and Cultural Protection Fund (CPF) to optimise positive impacts and/or minimise potential negative impacts of their cultural heritage conservation and safeguarding activities and support beneficiaries through advanced information and improved methodologies. 

The review responds to significant knowledge, research gaps and the urgency of climate change threats to heritage. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage, and Climate Change (ICSM) White Paper of 2022 concludes: 
‘Although heritage is present in IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] literature (Assessment Reports and Special Reports), this inclusion is unsystematic, superficial, and not inclusive of the vast diversity of types of heritage and risks posed by climate change.’ The White Paper also asserts that ‘climate change impacts are exacerbating environmental, social, and cultural risks to heritage. 

Several publications, beside earlier strategic literature reviews covering climate change and cultural heritage, have initiated a stocktaking of the existing but still fragmentary knowledge on this challenge. An important milestone is the Geosciences, 2019 special issue on the preservation of cultural heritage and resources threatened by climate change. It concludes that ‘heritage, material and environmental science are currently vibrant research and practice domains.’ 

As the present review will demonstrate, the peer reviewed literature dealing with climate change and cultural heritage has grown rapidly in the last five years. Much of the literature is produced by academics and represents predominantly European and North American research, with a preponderance of publications about physical impacts on individual buildings, sites, or social groups. Introducing climate change effects and threats within intersectional approaches and theories of domination (or decolonialisation) is also a recent trend, as demonstrated by the influx of papers on indigenous and traditional knowledge, and cross-referenced with gender and scientific studies of decay processes.

The scope of work for the present study is to ‘undertake a systematic review which synthesizes the international literature, evidence and research from both the 'Global South and Global North', on climate change impacts on tangible cultural heritage and ICH and also the impact of cultural heritage on the environment, including developing hazard-impact diagrams focusing on the impacts of gradual changes in climate on: (1) cultural heritage and (2) intangible heritage.’

 The report establishes that:

  • Many countries do not have a legal framework for heritage and climate change. Typically, different ministries oversee the two topics.
  • Making cultural heritage fit for climate change while avoiding maladaptation is a huge challenge, involving small changes such as continuous monitoring and retrofitting of buildings to avoid heat loss and use of unsustainable building materials (concrete as an example).
  • The role of research and innovation in protecting cultural heritage from climate change is paramount. 
  • Education is of primary importance in understanding the role cultural heritage plays in society.
  • Awareness of the vulnerability of cultural heritage and the threats due to climate change are low, whether within the scientific community, heritage professionals and often also among local communities.
  • Fragmentation of the sector and lack of coordination are obstacles that impede protection.
  • Major downfalls include: the integration of cultural heritage into mainstream climate change policies; knowledge of the scale and dimension of climate change damage and loss of cultural heritage; a coherent methodology for obtaining reliable information and quantitative data; incentives for cultural heritage to mitigate climate change effects; resources to research and implement actions; quantitative data on costs and benefits of adaptation measures; an inventory or central information point on loss and damage to cultural heritage; cross-sectoral cooperation; long-term monitoring of cultural heritage to document changes; and climate change and scientific expertise.
  • The EU notes that ‘there are no coherent methodologies for obtaining reliable information quantitative data or deep knowledge about the decay and loss of cultural heritage.'

Climate change is deeply intertwined with global patterns of inequality. As the impacts of climate change mount, millions of vulnerable people face disproportionate challenges related to extreme events, food, water and livelihood security, health effects, migration and forced displacement, loss of cultural identity and other related risks. Certain social groups are particularly vulnerable due to a combination of geographical location, cultural and socio-economic status and access to resources, services, and decision-making power. Increasingly, the perspectives, skills, and wealth of knowledge of communities, whether indigenous peoples or urban dwellers, are being valued in the quest for ways to strengthen resilience and address climate change. Cultural practices have a large role to play in this movement. The growth of literature on these topics is revealed in the SLR.

It is important recognise that the physical drivers of climate change do not operate in isolation, but as a complex system. In this way, many impacts of climate change are not the direct result a single driver, but the result of a complex set of physical changes. It is thus promising to see that many publications discuss several physical drivers simultaneously. For example, in the peer-reviewed literature, more than 61% of the publications discuss three to five physical climate drivers. It is also important to consider the wider context in which climate change hazards arise for example climate migration, geopolitical relations, and social inequalities. These contextual, or indirect, hazards will compound the direct physical hazards that are most typically considered in risk and resilience of heritage in the face of climate change. Greater research is needed in this area.

Based on the SLR statistical analysis the likely areas of interest to emerge in the coming years include: 

  • Cultural resilience and impact on gender, post-colonial studies 
  • Cultural resilience, oral traditions, and ICH 
  • Development of specific appraisal tools for cultural heritage assessment regarding energy management, life cycle approach 
  • Economic appraisal of the social and resilience value of cultural heritage.

Other trends or areas to be supported include: 

  • The roles and responsibilities of stakeholders to assess and document climate change impacts including those of loss and damage
  • Research on economic and social impacts of climate change on cultural heritage 
  • Identification of resilience measures 
  • Areas of research for IPCC and COP related to climate change impacts on cultural heritage
  • The management of scientific and climate-relevant information.

Image: Book Bunk Trust in partnership with African Digital Heritage Foundation and Built Environment Surveyors & Infrastructure Consultancy (BESIC) Group Ltd, are working to digitise and protect the physical collection of paper and photographic collections at the McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi in order to mitigate against the climate-related risks of heat and moisture.