Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

At least four of the new World Heritage sites designated by UNESCO at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee this week are under serious threat from climate change.

In all, 21 new sites were added to the World Heritage list, and although most are not immediately vulnerable to climate change, probably all are already experiencing local climatic shifts, and most will be significantly impacted within a few decades unless action is taken soon to reduce heat-trapping emissions globally. Climate change is a fast-growing problem for World Heritage and one that the World Heritage Committee needs to take much more seriously than it currently is.

Climate is the biggest global threat to World Heritage

In 2014, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified climate change as the biggest potential threat to natural World Heritage sites and a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Innsbruck in Austria found 136 of 700 cultural World Heritage sites to be at long-term risk from sea level rise. In 2016, a joint UCS, UNESCO, UNEP report concluded that “climate change is fast becoming one of the most significant risks for World Heritage worldwide”. This year, UNESCO launched two new reports highlighting the dramatic climate threat to coral reefs in World Heritage sites, and to sites in the Arctic.

The World Heritage Committee needs to address climate change

There is a dilemma here. The World Heritage Convention is a remarkable international instrument that was set up to identify and protect both natural and cultural sites of “outstanding universal value” for future generations. However, when the convention was adopted in 1972, the threat of global climate change was nowhere on political or scientific radar screens, and so the mechanisms of the treaty were geared to preventing local impacts such as water pollution, mining & quarrying, infrastructure development and land use change.

The convention hasn’t yet effectively responded to modern climate change risks. If a World Heritage site is threatened by coal mining, tourism pressure or suburbanization, it can be placed on the list of sites in danger, and then the responsibility lies with the host country to implement management actions reducing the threat. But no site has yet been placed on that list because of climate change.

Meanwhile, places at serious risk from climate change are still being added as new World Heritage sites. UCS plans to work with UNESCO’s two primary international non-profit technical advisors, IUCN and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) to address this issue at next year’s World Heritage Committee meeting.

Four newly designated World Heritage sites vulnerable

Here are the four newly designated sites already being impacted by climate change:

Lake District, United Kingdom

The Lake District. Photo: Adam Markham

A spectacular landscape of glaciated valleys and lakes, this region was the cradle of the English Romantic movement led by the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and home to the authors Beatrix Potter and John Ruskin. Its agro-pastoral landscape dotted with hill farms and stone walls is the result of hundreds of years of sheep farming, and the Lake District is now one of Britain’s most popular tourism destinations.

Unfortunately, the area is already experiencing warmer, wetter, winters and more intense extreme weather events. Disastrous floods in 2009 washed away old bridges and footpaths, and unprecedented drought in 2010-12 affected water supply and water quality in lakes and rivers. Conservation managers predict that species at the edge of their ranges in the Lake District, including cold-water fish such as the Arctic char, could become locally extinct, peat habitats may dry out, woodland species composition will change and invasive alien species like Japanese knotweed will proliferate in response to changing conditions.

Kujataa, Greenland (Denmark)

Ruined Norse buildings at Kujataa. Photo: UNESCO/Garðar Guðmunds-son

Kujataa in southern Greenland holds archaeological evidence of the earliest introduction of farming to the Arctic by Norse settlers from Iceland, and earlier hunter-gatherers.

Today, it’s an exceptionally well preserved cultural landscape of fields and pastures from medieval times through to the 18th Century, representing a combination of Norse and Inuit subsistence farming and sea mammal hunting. However, in common with the rest of Greenland, the area is experiencing a rapidly warming climate.

Coastal erosion exacerbated by sea level rise and more intense storms can damage historic monuments and archaeology. Elsewhere in Greenland, warming temperatures have been shown to hasten decomposition of organic material at archaeological sites, including wood, fabrics and animal skins – a growing problem throughout the Arctic. Warming at Kujataa is also expected to increase the growth of shrubby vegetation and alter agricultural cycles, potentially necessitating changes in cropping strategies by local farmers.

Landscapes of Dauria, Mongolia & Russian Federation

Daurien steppe wetlands. Photo: UNESCO/O.Kirilyu

This new transboundary World Heritage site covers a huge area of undisturbed steppe, and is a globally important ecoregion. Home to nomadic Mongolian herders who have used the grasslands for over 3,000 years, the Daurian steppes are also rich in biodiversity. They are important for millions of migratory birds and home to almost all the world’s Mongolian gazelle population as well as threatened species such as the red-crowned crane and swan goose.

According to a climate impacts assessment by IUCN, the mean annual temperature of the region has already risen by 2°C and further climate change is expected to bring longer and more severe droughts, reducing grassland productivity and changing wetlands dramatically in what is already a landscape of cyclical weather extremes. Desertification and wildfires worsened by climate change are adding further environmental pressures.

‡Khomani Cultural Landscape, Republic of South Africa

‡Khomani San cultural heritage has at last been recognized. Photo: UNESCO/Francois Odendaal Productions

The ‡Khomani San (or Kalahari bushmen) are the indigenous first people of the Kalahari Desert, but they were forced from their land when the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (now part of the  Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) was created in 1931. The displacement led to dispersion of the ‡Khomani San people through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana and almost killed off many traditional cultural practices as well as ancient languages such as N|u.

After apartheid ended, the San were successful in settling a land claim and the new World Heritage site, which coincides with the boundaries of the national park, recognizes their thousands of years of traditional use of this land, their close connection to its natural systems and their right to co-manage the preserve.

Unfortunately, climate change presents a new challenge. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected accelerated warming and a drying trend for this area of southern Africa, and in recent decades conversion of grassland into savanna, with more un-vegetated soil has been reported and increased desertification is a growing threat. Kalahari Gemsbok National Park is the fastest warming park in South Africa and scientists have recorded a rise in mean maximum annual temperature there of nearly 2°C since 1960.