Culture, Heritage, and Climate Change

09:14 by Cornelius Holtorf

During the week 6-10 December 2021, about 100 researchers and practitioners from around the world were given the opportunity to attend an international meeting on culture, heritage, and climate change. I was among them (as the only one from Sweden). Here is a short report.

The meeting was the first of its kind and co-sponsored by UNESCO, ICOMOS and the IPCC, with senior leaders of these organizations giving weight to the gathering, from Hoseung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, Assistant Director-General for Culture of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Teresa Patricio, President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The organization team of the meeting had included Will Megarry (ICOMOS Focal Point for Climate Change and Heritage), Jyoti Hosagrahar (Deputy Director, UNESCO World Heritage Centre) and Debra Roberts (Co-Chair, Working Group II, IPCC) as Meeting Co-Chairs, and Hana Morel as the Scientific Co-ordinator.

The main aims of the meeting were on the one hand to advance mutual discussions on culture, heritage, and climate change between global representatives of these three organizations and on the other hand to compile a report to the IPCC, in the run-up to its seventh assessment cycle in 2022, advocating for a stronger consideration of culture and heritage in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The previously unfulfilled potential for the future of culture and heritage in relation to climate change was seen to lie in two areas in particular: cultural governance in the present and the opportunity for humanity to learn from the past.

From the perspective of the IPPC, studying the causes, impacts and responses to climate change, the realms of culture and heritage were considered to have much untapped potential. Climate change is so comprehensive a challenge that all of society must respond and all parts of human lives must be considered.

The meeting consisted of a public introductory session and several public plenary discussions on the three main themes previously selected: Knowledge Systems, Impacts, and Solutions (recordings accessible here). Each theme was also the topic of an extensive precirculated White Paper. In addition, there were many small group discussions of ca 6-10 participants (plus rapporteurs) among the invited experts, dedicated to specific questions related to the three themes but also open for more general exchanges. I participated in seven of these closed sessions.

The following is a spontaneous discussion of some of the main issues that caught my attention and sparked my interest during any of the public or closed sessions, arranged by theme.  

Knowledge Systems

The first theme was all about recognizing and respecting diverse global knowledge systems and the need to co-produce relevant knowledge, combining different epistemologies, to inform global decision-making on climate issues.

Shadreck Chirikure (University of Cape Town, South Africa) spoke of “a parliament of knowledge without any hierarchy” and that meant without Western scientific knowledge at the top. Instead, he advocated for local communities to be given a voice to speak for themselves, establishing a “democracy of knowledge”, as he put it. The plea against modern education to create a more balanced way of life without assumed supremacy of the scientific knowledge system was echoed by indigenous representative Pasang Sherpa (Nepal). Indeed, all on the panel seemed to be agreeing on that point.

The problem with this, as I see it, is that climate change is a global problem which to understand and address requires science. That does not mean that science is the only way to understand and address climate change, but certainly it is of particular significance, given the entire intellectual tradition linked to the idea of enlightenment that led to much progress of understanding the world and creating technology that works in it. To insist on the significance of scientific knowledge does not mean to defend the ills of colonialism and inequality but rather can help in finding viable alternatives to practices causing harm. It surprised (and frightened) me that there seemed to be considerable anti-science sentiments underlying the discussions associated with this theme.

If all knowledge systems really were of equal validity to understand and address climate change, on what grounds could we dismiss the knowledge of climate change deniers, various conspiracy theories, or indeed of all sorts of other extraordinary beliefs about the world that some people hold? What is it that makes some indigenous and local knowledge more worth defending and being respected than others?

In one small group discussion, we discussed whether the IPCC should draw on evidence that wasn’t either peer-reviewed or scientific grey literature (which is required now). The question was effectively on what grounds the IPCC could trust other sources it may want to use.

To draw fully on local and indigenous knowledge, a wider range of evidence needs to be permissible. Communities should be involved in participatory processes and given the opportunity to express themselves in whatever form they prefer (as Chirikure had emphasised earlier). There is thus a need to consider a variety of new qualitative criteria for relevant cultural knowledge, but they can be hard to assess and measure which also may make results from different contexts difficult to compare with each other. Innovative approaches for solving this problem still need to be identified and agreed on.

In another discussion, we deliberated whether the climate crisis requires humanity to develop a new integrated knowledge system that all humans could share jointly. Maybe a unified body of knowledge could be manifested in an alternative kind of world heritage, too.


The second theme focussed on risks, losses and damage associated with climate change and its impact. (Unfortunately, due to timetable clashes I missed most of the discussions associated with this theme.)

Although the IPCC and many politicians and activists put much emphasis on ‘risks’ and ‘threats’, in one small group discussion we agreed that such terms are not always empowering people and, therefore, problematic. Talking about risks and threats emphasises what people may be losing according to contemporary value systems rather than what we wish to guarantee for people according to whatever value system, even in the future, for example wellbeing, safety, thriving.

This discussion brought home to us how important language is in identifying shared strategies and communicating with different audiences. The three co-organizing bodies of the meeting all spoke different languages and addressed in parts different people. Finding a common agenda will require reconsidering the language being used.


The final theme addressed solutions to climate change—how to facilitate transformative change and create alternative futures. The underlying concrete question was how cultural heritage could contribute to responses and solutions of climate change.

The initial panel recalled the comprehensive 2019 ICOMOS report “Futures of our Past” and the 2021 updated UNESCO Policy on World Heritage and Climate Change. These documents draw attention not only to the fact that culture and heritage are always at the heart of climate change and thus also need to be part of any solutions but also to cultural heritage as a valuable resource for adaptation strategies and increased resilience.

In his statement, Robin Coningham (UNESCO Chair on Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage at Durham, UK) emphasised that heritage provides a record of successful and unsuccessful past adaptations. In that sense, he suggested that ancient technology may unlock the resilience of communities by revealing unique cultural adaptations containing important lessons for the future.

Rohit Jigyasu (ICCROM) added that adaptation does not only refer to ancient building techniques and other practical solutions but also comes in the form of holistic knowledge embedded in all aspects of people’s lives. He also made clear that any knowledge has always evolved, and that knowledge of the past should not be romanticized but must be combined with possibilities offered by modern technology to be taken into the future. Indeed, the White Paper on Solutions, too, acknowledges the risk of culturalism (p. 56) and a need to challenge essentialist notions of cultural stability (p. 21).

In one of the small group discussions associated with this theme, we problematized the colonial and modernist idea of salvaging cultures in past and present, which lies at the origin of both anthropology and archaeology. In fact, culture and heritage are constantly renewing themselves and should not be seen exclusively in terms of threats, loss, and damage. Indeed, climate change and culture change are not the enemies of heritage, but they also create new heritage, compensating for some that may have been lost. After all, as archaeologists including the rescuers of Abu Simbel know, destructive events can have positive outcomes for heritage and culture too. (All this brought us back to the point made earlier about the significance of language and issues with terminology such as the IPCC’s references of ‘loss’ and ‘damage’.)

I also took away from all the presentations and discussions on culture- and heritage-based solutions to the challenges provided by climate change that

  • all science-based solutions are socially, politically, and culturally entangled
  • the affective power of cultural heritage and cultural creativity is a powerful tool to be harnessed for climate action and adaptation (but at the same time there is a risk that climate action turns into an uncritical climate religion offering higher meaning to life and promising a path to salvation…)
  • there is a risk that climate action deprives many people outside the Global North of cultural aspirations for the future which are legitimate and ought to be respected
  • a focus on the collective human endeavour, dialogue and cooperation is more significant than the emphasis on conserving national and other forms of potentially divisive heritage.


What struck me a lot is that the contributors to the open panels and even many participants in the closed session often agreed with each other on the main positions and points being made, just adding different examples and perspectives. Whereas this was intellectually disappointing, it demonstrated shared concerns and a common agenda.

The main goal of the meeting to give culture and heritage a place at the table where climate change is being discussed was perhaps achieved, and future collaborations between IPCC, UNESCO and ICOMOS have become much more likely. But the reason for this may have been different than intended. The White Papers were too extensive and launched only a few days before the event so that detailed readings and discussions during the meeting were impossible. Moreover, many of the questions set for detailed discussion in the small group discussions were too specific and impossible to address without any prior preparations.

The main benefit were the discussions themselves, creating improved understanding of many important issues for all the global participants working with climate change in various contexts. These joint discussions created social capital between the participants which hopefully can be put to good use in future work on this im­portant topic. 

Cornelius Holtorf
In 2017, Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, was awarded a UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. This is one of eight Chairs in Sweden, and the only one within the cultural sector. Cornelius Holtorf, holder of the UNESCO Chair, alongside his team, will continue to generate ideas through this forum.

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