It’s Time to Stop Ignoring the Climate Change Threat to World Heritage

June 28, 2019 | 9:38 am
Dan Broun
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The World Heritage list comprises more than 1,000 of our planet’s most important natural and cultural heritage sites, but from the ancient city of Venice to the forests and rivers of Yellowstone National Park, these extraordinary places are increasingly vulnerable to climate change. The 187 governments which have ratified the World Heritage Convention have promised to take action to address climate threats to these sites, but as with the same countries’ Paris Agreement pledges, progress to date has been far too slow.

As an unprecedented early summer heatwave grips parts of Europe, and the worst wildfires in 20 years rage out of control in Spain, the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee is beginning in Baku, in oil-rich Azerbaijan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The meeting comes in the wake of the recent wake-up call issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with its Special Report on 1.5°C.

The IPCC described how much worse a 2°C world is likely to be than if global temperature changes were limited to 1.5°C. For example, a further decline of 70-90 percent in coral reef is expected even at 1.5°C, but with a warming of 2°C, a shocking 99 percent of coral is expected to be lost.

There are 29 World Heritage reefs, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef, and in the US, the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument in the Hawaiian archipelago. According to a 2017 UNESCO analysis, coral in 21 out of the 29 properties (79 percent) experienced severe or repeated heat stress during the previous three years.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a US World Heritage site, provides sanctuary for Galapagos sharks, coral reefs and an extraordinary array of marine biodiversity and Pacific cultural heritage. Photo: Courtney Couch/HIMB

Worsening wildfires and a global glacier meltdown

On land, the heat and fires gripping Europe this week are another sign of a shift in climate conditions and a “new normal’ that will bring larger and more intense wildfires to many fire-prone parts of the Globe soon.

For example, devastating wildfires in Australia’s Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area came on the back of dramatic heat and drought in 2016, severely damaging unique fire-sensitive alpine and rainforests ecosystems.  Fires hit again in 2019, endangering areas of slow-growing forests including King Billy pines, some of which are 1,000 years old.

As in Tasmania, one of the biggest threats to the Cape Floral region of South Africa with its extraordinarily rich plant endemism is the increased frequency and intensity of fires. In the US, western fire seasons have gotten at least 7 weeks longer since the 1970s, and we are seeing more large fires.

World Heritage glaciers too are under threat. According to a new study from IUCN, glaciers will completely disappear from many World Heritage sites within 80 years if current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Of the 19,000 glaciers surveyed in 46 World Heritage properties, (9% of the total of the total of approximately 200,000 glaciers world-wide), almost two-thirds could be lost.

To be inscribed on the World Heritage List, a protected area must demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) under at least one of ten criteria. World Heritage sites that are listed wholly for the value of their glaciers include the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch and the transnational site that includes Glacier Bay and Wrangell/St. Elias National in the US, and Canada’s Kluane National Park.

Ancient sites of the Mediterranean at risk

Yet more bad news comes from a 2018 study published in Nature Communications which looked at the risk from sea level rise and coastal erosion for 49 cultural World Heritage properties situated on low-lying coasts of the Mediterranean. The analysis showed that 96% of the sites would be at risk by the end of the century, and most of them are already vulnerable.

Among the sites already at the highest risk today are the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna (Italy), the Kasbah of Algiers (Algeria), Tyre (Lebanon) and Délos (Greece). On the island of Délos – the mythical birthplace of the Greek god Apollo and a center of Greco-Roman culture, sea level rise is pushing salt water up through the porous limestone substrate and damaging stonework and marble in this remarkable archaeological World Heritage property.

Flooding and coastal erosion aren’t the only climate threat to the Mediterranean. As elsewhere, wildfires, driven by heat and drought are increasing in the region, putting at risk World Heritage sites including the Old Town of Corfu and the monasteries of Mount Athos (Greece) and the Donana National Park in Spain.

Researcher Stéphanie Maillot shows the effects of salt water intrusion on 2,200 year old artefacts at the Délos World Heritage site in Greece. Photo: Andrew Potts.

Time for the World Heritage Committee to take action

Despite the clear and present danger that climate change represents for World Heritage sites across the globe, the World Heritage Committee has not responded to the scale or urgency of the problem. For example, if a site comes under local or regional threat from, say, mining, a hydroelectric project or uncontrolled urban development, it can be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, with the sanction of being taken off the list if the problems are not urgently addressed.

However, no similar mechanism exists for climate change. Nor is there even any formal requirement under the World Heritage Committee’s current Operating Guidelines to assess climate risk or propose resilience or adaptation measures to address these risks when nominating a new site to the World Heritage list.

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) will be at the Baku meetings this week, working with partners including the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), World Heritage Watch, Historic Environment Scotland and Australia’s James Cook University to propose new strategies and mechanisms by which the World Heritage Committee could effectively address climate change. The proposals include the adoption of a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) for World Heritage properties.