COP 28: Integrating Cultural Heritage into the Climate Action Agenda

The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to the UN Climate Change Convention, currently underway in Dubai, is host to a convergence of arts, culture, and – of course – climate change advocacy. More than 1,000 cultural organizations, leaders, and practitioners have endorsed a Global Call to Action, urging the Convention to place culture at the core of international climate policy. This call emphasises the adoption of a ‘Joint Work Decision on Culture and Climate Action’, a pioneering step towards not only acknowledging but implementing culture-based solutions to climate change.

European Heritage Sector
One of the organizations representing the European heritage sector is Europa Nostra. Their mission at COP 28 is to advocate for ‘culture-led’ climate solutions, and to challenge today’s ‘carbonscape’ traditions. Europa Nostra’s Secretary-General and Project Leader of the European Heritage Hub, Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailović states that “Europe is already an international leader in both climate action and cultural action – and so too should it be a leader in culture and heritage-based climate action”, and urges EU member states to support the joint work decision. With Paris Agreement targets looming and current policies falling short, the Hub hopes that policymakers will realise the unsung potential of culture.

What is Culture- and Heritage-Based Climate Action?
Culture and heritage have shaped all of humanity’s history, yet they remain underutilised in climate policy. Heritage-led solutions offer a unique perspective in addressing climate change by incorporating traditional knowledge that fosters resilience and regenerative solutions. Heritage-based climate action aims to transform the inspirational stories of our own pasts into measurable and impactful action, and to reframe our understanding of life before ‘petrocultures’.

Traditional Knowledge
The heritage sector advocates using traditional knowledge as a means to address climate change. This approach recognises that our ancestors were driven by scarcity and knew how to save energy and live sustainably, and that we are ignoring these tried-and-tested methods at our own peril.  Examples include things ranging from Roman-era watermanagement systems to practices like using shutters, thick curtains, and natural insulation materials to save energy.

Instead of praying for futuristic technologies that allow us to overcome the environment, traditional knowledge shows us resilient ways of living with it.

The sector’s true value may lie in its ability to involve itself actively in climate discussions and campaigns

Contributing to Awareness
The sector’s true value may lie not just in tangible solutions but in its ability to involve itself and its public actively in climate discussions and campaigns. History helps us to understand the reality of changing environments and the truly destructive nature of sea level rise for humans. For nearly 1 million years, England and Europe were joined by what is now known as Doggerland – a vast tract of inhabited land that disappeared as recently as 8000 years ago due to tsunamis and rising sea levels.

The modern example often highlighted currently is Venice, but this is far from the only heritage site in serious danger from climate change. Protecting valued cultural sites from the impacts of climate change is a financially and politically challenging task: Venice’s flood-barrier project MOSE is estimated at well over its initial €4.7bn and is already a decade past its delivery date, but the other options for protecting the city are non-existent. 

Emphasising that these kind of vunerable heritage sites are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” should not be overlooked. As places that have survived for hundreds of years grow increasingly threatened by sea levels, storms, and unstable weather, we may begin to appreciate the necessity of urgent action. The loss of valued cultural sites can and must be utilised as a wake up call.

What is a Joint Work Decision?
A ‘Joint Work Decision’ in international agreements like the UN Climate Convention is a collaborative agreement or decision by the participants. It outlines a shared commitment or action plan on a specific issue, in this context, integrating culture into climate action. This decision is typically a product of member state negotiations and consensus, aiming to address multifaceted challenges through united strategies and collaborations. A High-Level Ministerial Dialogue regarding Culture-based Climate Action is scheduled for Friday 8th December at COP 28, in hopes of the UN adopting the Joint Work Decision at COP 29 next year.

Call to Action
The ongoing Call to Action invites public participation to recognise and promote the role of culture in global climate efforts. This initiative encourages individuals, networks, and organisations to endorse and spread awareness of just how crucial the intersection between heritage and climate action is. Over 1000 signatories already back the Call – add your voice!

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