Connecting Climate Change to Places We Love

Seeds adapted to an arid climate growing at Ndée Bikíyaa (The People’s Farm) near Canyon Day, Arizona / Native Seeds

“What is at the intersection of climate action and cultural heritage?,” asked Andrew Potts, organizer of Climate Heritage Mobilization, a day-long conference, which was part of the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. “What does cultural preservation woke to climate change look like?”

To find out, the conference organizers used a “Talanoa dialogue.” In Fiji and other Pacific locales, the word “Talanoa” describes discussion and storytelling that is inclusive, transparent, and improves the collective good. Here, the Talanoa dialogue for climate action involved exchanging ideas and examples from communities around the world so they may be leveraged elsewhere.

The dialogue underscored cultural heritage as an issue of human rights. “There are so many other threats—why should we care about cultural heritage?” asked Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights. Citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she pointed to every individual’s right to participate in cultural life. Heritage, she explained, is important because it is an expression of human dignity.

Comprising both the tangible and intangible, cultural heritage brushes every facet of life. It includes sites, structures, and landscapes that have historical, religious, aesthetic values. Spiritual beliefs, vernacular languages, storytelling traditions, and indigenous knowledge also constitute cultural heritage.

When climate change affects any of these—for instance, the 100-plus World Heritage sites that risk damage or forced migration in the face of rising oceans—human rights are affected.

A human-rights based approach acknowledges and values indigenous communities and their sustainable land stewardship. By emphasizing participation and consultation of affected people, their long-held knowledge of a place can critically inform life in a changing world.

Andrea Carmen of the Yaqui Nation, and executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, commented that seed-trading traditions have perpetuated drought-resistant varieties of crops.

The tule marshes of the San Francisco Bay demonstrate the shared benefits of climate resilience and cultural heritage. These sacred sites of the Native Americans can also absorb ten times more carbon than a pine forest. “A nation stays alive when its cultures stay alive,” said Bennoune.

Historic preservation, which is about peoples’ connection to place, can enable climate change mitigation.

Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, remarked that linking climate and historic preservation help the grave realities resonate with a wider audience. Cultural heritage “connects climate change to places we love and care about.”

He has seen the most effective action on the local scale, such as the Weather It Together initiative that identifies and protects flood-prone areas in historic Annapolis, Maryland, and the 3-D modeling of the World Heritage site Hoi An, Vietnam, that marks flood risks to important buildings.

The “Weather it Together” initiative seeks to protect the historic seaport in Annapolis, Maryland / City of Annapolis

Buildings are not only a key part of communities’ cultural heritage, but their preservation is also important for the climate. Using, rather than demolishing, existing buildings can significantly impact a city’s carbon footprint. According to Carl Elefante, president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the greatest difference cities can make is to “simply occupy space” by using existing buildings, keeping their embodied carbon intact.

Daniel Zarrilli, director of climate policy and programs for New York City, demonstrated that New York City is moving toward mandatory building retrofits, crucial as 80 to 90 percent of the city’s buildings will still exist in 2050.

David Harkin, a climate change scientist at Historic Environment Scotland, explained the positive outcomes that can result from upgrades. At Edinburgh Castle, renovation yielded annual reductions in energy use by 33 percent and emissions by 31 percent—changes that, in a few short years, have already saved them double what they invested to make the improvements.

Energy savings from recent upgrades are especially apparent at Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland / Wikipedia

Jean Carroon, principal at Goody Clancy Architects, stressed the imperative to change consumption patterns. The built environment requires materials that devastate lives around the world: silica arrives from China by the labor of those suffering from silicosis; and copper from Africa, “where working in the copper mines is a death sentence.” Living as citizens of the world foremost entails comprehending that our actions reverberate worldwide.

Climate Heritage Mobilization demonstrated the powerful means through which cultural heritage can galvanize climate action. Whether by enacting policies that validate knowledge of indigenous people or by requiring retrofits, it becomes clear that, in the words of Carroon, “a safe, healthy world values what exists.”

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

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