Climate Change is the Fastest Growing Threat to World Heritage

July 3, 2018 | 12:34 pm
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

Nineteen extraordinary places were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list this week, including Buddhist temples in South Korea, the forests and wetlands that form the ancestral home of the Anishinaabeg people in Canada, and the ancient port city of Qalhat in Oman. But amongst all the congratulations and good feeling that comes with adding sites to list of the world’s most important places, there was little or no serious talk about the implications of climate change. Last year, the 21-nation World Heritage Committee, the Convention’s governing body, raised the alarm about climate change and called for stronger efforts to implement the Paris Agreement and increase resilience of World Heritage properties, promising to revise its own decade-old climate policy. In Bahrain, however, the issue received short shrift, making it vital that the Committee make it a key agenda item at its next meeting in 2019.

Climate threats were not anticipated when the Convention was signed in 1972

Added to the World Heritage list in 2018, Pimachiowin Aki in Canada, part of the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabeg people. Photo: Bastian Bertzky/IUCN

Adopted at the General Council of UNESCO in 1972, the World Heritage Convention’s core mission is to protect and conserve the World’s most important natural and cultural heritage. Back in 1972, there was no hint that climate change would become the systemic threat to World Heritage sites that it has since proved. To be inscribed on the World Heritage List, a protected area must demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) under at least one of ten criteria. For example, in the US, the Statue of Liberty is listed under two criteria, as a “masterpiece of the human spirit” and as a “symbol of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights…”. Yellowstone National Park is listed under four criteria, including for its scenic splendor, unparalleled geothermal activity, intact large landscape and role as a refuge for wildlife.

If a site should come under threat from, for example, mining, deforestation or urban development, it can be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, with the possibility of being de-listed if the problems are not addressed. This year, Kenya’s Lake Turkana was added to the Danger List, because of an immediate threat from upstream development of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia.

Climate change is a major threat to the OUV to many World Heritage properties, but the Danger List does not seem an appropriate tool for addressing the issue, as no one state party can address the threat on its own. Neither does the nomination process for new World Heritage sites require any assessment of whether the OUV may be degraded as a result of climate change. It seems absurd that site nomination dossiers which are extremely detailed, take years to complete and require the inclusion of comprehensive management strategies, have no obligation to include even the most basic assessment of climate vulnerability. Consequently, UCS is working with partners to try and identify ways to better respond to climate risks within the World Heritage system.

Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage

At a workshop in Bahrain last week, we asked a group of natural and cultural World Heritage site managers from around the globe whether they were experiencing climate impacts at the site where they work, 21 of 22 said yes, and 16 of the 22 described actions they are taking to monitor or respond to climate change  And that makes sense, because we know from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and a host of country and site-level studies that the impacts of climate change are everywhere. But it also drives home the point that this issue is not getting as much attention as it needs at the higher levels of the Convention. Climate impacts are clearly being under-reported by states parties under the official mechanisms of the Convention – the State of Conservation (SOC) reports, and IUCN’s World Heritage Outlook 2 report, published in 2017, identified climate change as the biggest potential threat to natural world heritage and estimated that one in four sites is already being impacted. This also must be an underestimate. In fact, virtually all properties must be being impacted in some way, the key question is how severe the threat to OUV is for each site, and over what time-scale?

UCS, with UNESCO and the United National Environment Program (UNEP) has published 31 representative case studies of World Heritage properties being impacted by climate change, including Yellowstone National Park and the Galapagos Islands. In Bahrain, we heard many new stories about how climate change is affecting World Heritage properties, including for example the immediate risk of flooding and erosion to the Islands of Gorée and Saint-Louis in Senegal, vulnerability to changes in rainfall patterns at Petra in Jordan, and the potential loss of cave paintings & petroglyphs in Tasmania. The historic city of George Town in Penang, Malaysia suffered unprecedented damage from a typhoon in 2017, the kind of extreme storm that the area has not normally had to face in the past.

Map showing highest level of heat stress for the 29 World Heritage reefs during the third global coral bleaching event, Image: NOAA Coral Reef Watch/UNESCO

Although there was a 2014 independent analysis of long-term sea level vulnerability to cultural World Heritage sites that identified 136 out of 700 , the only group of World Heritage properties for which a comprehensive scientific assessment of climate risk has been undertaken, are the coral reefs. There are 29 World Heritage reefs, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef, and Papahānaumokuākea in the Hawaiian archipelago. According to UNESCO’s 2017 analysis (Scott Heron and Mark Eakin, both of NOAA, were coordinating lead authors, along with Fanny Douvere from the World Heritage Centre), coral in 21 out of the 29 properties (79%) have experienced severe or repeated heat stress during the past three years. Projecting impacts into the future, under the IPCC’s RCP 8.5 scenario, with a global average temperature of 4.3C by 2100, twice-per-decade severe bleaching would be apparent at 25 of the World Heritage Reefs by 2040.

Why we need a Climate Vulnerability Index for World Heritage

What is needed is a simple, standardized methodology for top-line rapid assessment of climate vulnerability that would work for all World Heritage sites, whether listed for natural, cultural or mixed values. Such a tool would enable the World Heritage Committee to determine which World Heritage properties are most immediately at risk from climate change, where the problems will likely be in the future, and where resources are most urgently needed for more detailed assessment and monitoring, and to undertake resilience and adaptation activities. The methodology needs to be repeatable so that periodic reviews can be undertaken.

Island of Saint-Louis, Sénégal – a World Heritage site at immediate threat from sea level rise. Photo: Dominique Roger/UNESCO

To meet this need, a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) for World Heritage properties has been proposed. If adopted by the World Heritage Committee, it has the potential to influence responses to climate change at the World’s most important natural & cultural heritage sites. The concept emerged at an expert meeting on the Baltic island of Vilm, Germany, in 2017, which UCS participated in, and was proposed in the meeting outcome document.  The meeting which was called in response to a decision at the World Heritage Committee in Krakow earlier in 2017 to prioritize climate action and resilience, to investigate the implications for the OUV of World Heritage sites, and revise the Convention’s decade-old climate policy.

At the Bahrain meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the CVI concept was presented at a side event organized by two of the Committee’s three official advisory bodies (IUCN and ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites)) in which UCS participated, and at a meeting of the ICOMOS Climate Change & Heritage Working Group co-organized by UCS at the National Museum of Bahrain. The CVI idea is gaining traction. Its value to the Committee would be that it could help quickly identify thematic groups of properties – such as Arctic sites, coastal archaeology, or high mountain ecosystems – at risk, then provide for a deeper dive into all sites within a threatened category, flagging individual sites in need of urgent action or further assessment at the national level.  Critical for the success of the CVI is that it can be applied to both natural and cultural sites, so that a methodology that works for coral reefs, can also work for earthen architecture or cave paintings.

Outside of the side events and the workshops of the advisory bodies and NGOs, where it was a bigger topic than ever before, climate change was hardly mentioned in the plenary sessions of the World Heritage Committee. Only Committee members Trinidad & Tobago and Australia substantively raised the issue, the latter offering an amendment to the Bahrain decision document which was adopted without objection, and which requires the revised climate policy to be presented at the 43rd Committee meeting in Azerbaijan in 2019. Now there is a window of opportunity for civil society to influence the policy revision, and for the vulnerability index concept to move forward. It’s an opportunity that, if taken, could influence how the World Heritage Convention deals with climate change for decades to come.