Reflections from COP21, Paris: Trying to improve the treatment of cultural heritage within the IPCC Assessment Report

Earlier this month, I attended the COP21 IPCC Climate Change Conference in Paris to speak at an ‘Official Side Event’, organised by the United States National Committee of the International Committee for Monuments and Sites (US-ICOMOS) – see In effect, I was part of a team speaking on behalf of the broader ‘heritage sector’ to try and make the case for cultural heritage to be taken more seriously within IPCC reports and documentation, and for ‘heritage issues’ – broadly conceived – to be considered within debates about climate change in general.

As my last couple of blogs tend to reveal, I have been thinking about these connections for some time – with my ideas fermenting along the lines of thinking about how climate change debates often get conducted in a language that speaks to issues of ‘heritage’, both in the sense of seemingly cherishing something from a supposedly stable past that we must preserve, and also in the guise of all that rhetorical talk of a responsibility to our children and grandchildren.

The parking-lot rows of official airliners that I saw in Paris CDG Airport, with royal and presidential crests on the side, were testament that many of the world’s leaders were in Paris for this global Summit. Expectations were high. While the ‘real’ negotiations were taking place at a conference centre in Le Bourget, however, numerous Official Side Events were taking place at a range of venues around the City.

Paris was noticeably trying to do its best to get behind the Summit: the Champs Elysées had lots of swings and fixed bicycles that could be used to produce electricity to show your support of ‘global togetherness’. The instructions said: “To mark the COP21 in Paris, TOGETHER, let’s generate 100% renewable energy to light up the Champs-Elysées”. I didn’t see one person pedalling or swinging in support for the entire length of the Boulevard!

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One of several ‘pedal-stations’ along the Champs Elysées. All were empty.

The US-ICOMOS and UNESCO organisers of our Official Side Event were very pleased with the turnout. Several IPCC ‘Chapter leads’ and assorted other influential people were present, including Dr Youba Sokona, an IPCC Vice Chair. Speaking up for ‘cultural heritage’ were Anna Sidorenko of UNESCO, Keith Jones of the National Trust, Anika Molesworth of the World Sustainable Farms Initiative, and me – as the ‘academic voice’: quite a daunting task!


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With chandeliers and ornate decoration like this, it has to be Paris. [Picture credit: Cristina Banahan (US-ICOMOS)]

Essentially, what I said was that an understanding of cultural heritage is of crucial importance for debates and actions around climate change issues. Firstly, human engagement with climate change has a heritage that must be considered. This speaks to the heritage of human-climate relations, as a present set of ideas through which stories about ‘the past’ are used to convey certain meanings, anxieties, coping strategies, duties and desires for an imagined future. Secondly, an awareness of climate change is often channeled through notions of heritage; indeed, I would argue that climate change issues need heritage in order to gain critical purchase. And then I developed each of these two themes in turn:

In terms of the heritage of human-climate relations, I see this through three connected lenses:

First, from practices and experiences of Meso-American farmers coping with environmental crises, to previous European struggles to acclimatise during the Little Ice Age, there is a wealth of human-climate heritage that can provide lessons for today. The idea that the study of past environmental change has many lessons for understanding contemporary and future climate changes is at the heart of Palaeo-environmental Science, but it always strikes me that the faith shown in this scientific approach is never very well matched by a deeper consideration of what might be learned from human experiences, mitigation and adaptation strategies – the sort of stuff that is often channeled through the realm of ‘Traditional’ or ‘Indigenous Knowledge Systems’.

Another facet of this heritage of human-climate relations can be witnessed through a site such as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in Dorset and East Devon, which has been a feature in several of my previous blogs. The duty to protect a World Heritage Site such as the Jurassic Coast has required an active effort to preserve ‘change’; dynamic processes of erosion and coastal evolution are required to maintain the integrity of the Jurassic Coast. On the one hand, this recognizes that ‘stability’ is only relevant within limits, is often un-achievable, and may not even be desirable. On the other hand, the examination of the Jurassic Coast opens up timescales (hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years) that are rarely considered within the ‘human dimensions’ of in climate change debates, but which are crucial to the cultural understanding of deep time, and the discovery and meaning of ‘evolution’. Although the Jurassic Coast is listed as a ‘natural’ World Heritage Site, the discovery and understanding of conceptions of deep time, and of evolution that the site has prompted place it centrally within the cultural realm – and leaves the supposed separation of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ as clearly redundant.

The third element of the heritage of human-climate relations that I talked about is encapsulated by the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ironbridge Gorge (UK), which celebrates the human capacity to effect climate. (Another regular blog subject). As the ‘Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’, Ironbridge Gorge is a key site in the unfolding ‘heritage of the modern world system’. Such sites prompt us to turn our attention to the future, and to think through what the ‘future past’ might behold. 300 years ago, no-one would have thought that an industrial site such as Ironbridge might turn into ‘heritage’; so what might be valued as ‘heritage’ in 300 years time? In 30,000 years time, famous WHSs such as Stonehenge or Venice will (probably) be dust – but we will certainly be leaving behind material and immaterial remains for generations in the ‘deep future’ to content with. For instance, drawing on the fascinating work of Holtorf and Höbjerg (, how will people in the distant future engage with elements of the present world system – such as radioactive waste – that we will be passing on to them? After all, the presence of radioactive waste necessarily impels us to consider – and hopefully, take some responsibility – for the cultural heritage of today for many millennia into the future.

Turning to the second key connection between heritage and climate change, I would argue that the debate and purposeful consideration of climate change that is encapsulated by the whole COP21 Summit desperately needs ‘heritage’ in order to make any necessary changes.

Climate change agendas require heritage in order to generate an ‘affective capacity’; one that opens out a more socially resonant and politically aware field of debate. This is both through the use of ‘famous sites’ and buildings, and also through the experience and meaning of ordinary people going about their lives: the ‘universal heritage of the everyday’. All climate change policies and attitudes operate through an implicit framework, of a perceived impression of the past, shaping a contemporary agenda geared towards sustaining a particular scenario for future generations. In other words, all human relationships with climate change, therefore, operate through a lens of heritage.

To paraphrase Holtorf and Höbjerg, there seems to be a human condition that we would like to be ‘good ancestors’ for the people of tomorrow. But how can this happen?

In my view, we should try and be optimistic and support an idea of ‘progressive’ or ‘purposeful’ heritage: in which ideas of heritage can engage as well as be engaged with. We need a more creative engagement with the ‘future past’, and to this end, maybe we should be asking a slightly different question: (Drawing on work by Holtorf and Höbjerg), rather than considering how we can ‘protect’ (physical and famous) ‘heritage sites’, from climate change processes, we should be asking what sort of future do we want to see, and how might cultural heritage play a strategic role in achieving this?