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Cultural heritage and climate change in COP26

Nov 02,2021 - Last updated at Nov 02,2021

In 2015, the year world leaders signed the Paris Agreement and committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, I called for the adoption of an 18th SDG on Culture and Heritage.  I did so because any meaningful action for the betterment of human lives and our natural environment requires culture-based strategies.

Six years later, during this coming together of world leaders, activists and professionals at COP26 in Glasgow, I will once again make that urgent call and join other activists to launch the Climate Heritage Network Race to Resilience Campaign. But this time we stand together in recognition of the integral role that culture, heritage and the arts play in the development of sustained, durable and real action on climate change.  

According to the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation, UNESCO, the term cultural heritage encompasses “tangible cultural heritage” divided into three categories: Immovable assets, which include monuments and archaeological sites; movable assets, including paintings, sculptures, coins and manuscripts; and underwater assets including shipwrecks, underwater ruins and cities. In addition, cultural heritage also encompasses “intangible cultural heritage”. This includes oral traditions, performing arts, rituals as well as knowledge derived from the development and experience of human practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills.

Jordan has over 100,000 archeological places, with 15,500 sites formally documented and registered, in addition to a rich and diverse intangible cultural heritage.  This wealth of cultural heritage assets is a significant contributor to its economic and development goals through tourism (which alone made up 15 per cent of Jordan’s GDP in 2019), services, handicrafts and the cultural industries (museums, art and music, film production etc). They are also components of national values, identity and social cohesion. 

Not only does climate change impact the physical places that fall within the definition of cultural heritage, but also impacts the relationship that people have to these places and to one another — all critical to our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

The International Council on Monuments and Sites has concluded “climate change has become one of the most significant and fastest growing threats to people and their cultural heritage worldwide”. Increased temperatures will damage fragile rock structures, particularly sandstone, in which the monuments of Petra are carved.  Extreme weather phenomena will also inflict significant damage to archeological sites and built heritage including manuscripts and artifacts contained in some of them.  Increased evaporation will alter humidity levels and will impact sites like Qusayr Amra, Petra, and the churches of northern Jordan where murals and wall paintings will suffer from corrosion, mold and salt damage. There is significant loss and often-irreversible damage to cultural heritage as a result of climate induced fires, winds, droughts and changes in precipitation, flooding and extreme weather phenomena.

Climate change in equal measure causes change, damage and loss to intangible cultural heritage.  The decline and disappearance of vegetation, plant and animal species changes important cultural practices, food systems and traditional culinary skills, medicinal herbs and traditions, and most importantly the loss of food security.  Climate induced damage and loss results in a change in people’s relationship with each other, with the land and with the places they identify with.  This causes an evolution in the sense of identity and values, and a loss of traditional stories, rituals and traditions that are no longer set in an identifiable cultural landscape.

It is predicted that climate change impacts will result in migration and the movement of people globally.  In Jordan, this will cause significant stress on urban areas, already heavily populated, as their populations increase and add economic and social stress on an already stretched system from regional migration. 

Ultimately climate change will impact people’s lives, livelihoods and their way of life reshaping economies, landscapes and communities. 

Equally, without cultural heritage our efforts to mitigate and survive climate change will not be complete.  We need culture, heritage and the arts to survive but also to thrive in spite of climate change.  The key to this lies in building resilience, which includes the capacity to transform, the capacity to persist and the capacity to adapt. 

Culture, heritage and the arts are the key to all three components of resilience. Culture-based strategies open a multiplicity of pathways built on traditional systems of social cohesion and communal strength to enable people to cope with stress and change.  They focus on inherited values of trust, social networks and place attachment, all critical to how communities come together and survive in times of challenge.

Culture-based strategies focus on important but often unrecognised local, traditional and indigenous knowledge, traditional technologies, including techniques and innovation through practice and adaptation. They acknowledge resource-based livelihoods, traditional use of the land and sea for subsistence, and sustainable management approaches.  

The ancient hydrological systems of the Nabataeans, for example, hold invaluable lessons for our approach to water harvesting, collection, distribution and use.  And there are many lessons to be learnt from traditional building practices, use of material, and agricultural techniques among many others.

We now know that any successful effort at real action for change will require global and society-wide transformation implemented at all levels and among all communities. This wide buy-in can only be achieved when all communities are understood and acknowledged.  Culture-based strategies incorporate unique and diverse worldviews and belief systems and related rites and rituals, sacred natural sites, mythologies, spirituality, languages and values.  Culture provides both the capacity for dialogue and exchange, which fosters interconnectedness, and emphasises adaptive learning, including the role of creativity and inspiration in adaptation and innovation.   

We anticipate the need for urgent, rapid and far-reaching measures. We know that change is difficult, disruptive and often unfair.  Culture embodies within it an intangible quality that remains critical for human wellbeing and peace of mind.  It is a celebration of beauty, of history, of human connection.  It defines our national identity and what is important to us. It expresses our national character.  In our collective efforts to begin the process of evolution and transformation in our production and consumption patterns, and our lifestyles, our national character matters.  It will be the glue that holds together our communities and the necessary reminder that we are doing this for us and for generations to come.


HRH Princess Dana Firas is UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Cultural Heritage and president of the Petra National Trust


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