A European Union expert group said to be ‘shocked’ about Europe’s current plans – or rather lack thereof – to protect cultural heritage against climate change: “Cultural heritage is under attack from climate change at an unprecedented speed and scale”, the so-called EU Open Method of Coordination (OMC) group of Member States’ wrote in their report from September 2022. “Yet EU Member States do not have proper policies and action plans in place to mitigate these attacks, nor does the EU.”
To prepare for future challenges, the expert group was asked by the EU to gather information on the current state of heritage and climate change in Europe, the gaps in knowledge and other deficiencies in European countries. In the ‘Strengthening cultural heritage resilience for climate change’ report, policy workers, decision-makers and heritage experts across the EU can read about 83 best practices, collected from 26 countries.
The report presents a number of recommendations for possible future actions, in line with the EU’s policy to become climate neutral by 2050. From education and training to raising awareness and policy-making, here are the most important points to take from the report.
Major sources of concern
According to the report, extreme climatic events form a major problem for the preservation of “a World Heritage site or a small pilgrimage chapel in the countryside, an old steelworks or a historic garden.” While immediate dangers such as floods, fires and erosion spring to mind, long-term consequences such as rising/fluctuating temperatures or humidity, stress materials more, leading to a greater need for restoration. And those dangers are the only ones researchers are fairly certain about: “The consequences of concurrent catastrophic events for the whole cultural heritage sector have not yet been adequately dealt with or investigated – this is now a major source of concern.”
Meanwhile, 9 out of 28 countries that took part in the investigation, do not have any legal framework for heritage and climate change. Only seven countries mentioned that there are plans to coordinate: Ireland, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Slovenia, Finland and Sweden.
It shows, as not a single country has made an economic assessment of the full range of costs of climate change impacts on European cultural heritage. Experts noted that they also don’t “have a full picture of the wider range of benefits to European societies arising from investments in the capital that cultural heritage offers.” It opens up an excellent opportunity to regard cultural heritage as something that can be assessed in terms of capital but as a requirement for a healthy, democratic Europe.
Several expert group members write in the report that research has been, and should be the most important driver of action to help heritage to fight against climate change. “An evaluation of the state of play of research shows that there is still a need to identify and better understand the most severe threats”, the report reads.
Heritage should not be regarded as merely a ‘victim’ the authors of the report warn. “It can provide solutions to help Europe to become a green, climate-neutral continent.” The 83 good practices show climate-neutral use of heritage sites, the reuse of materials and building methods, and responsible preservation techniques.
Education could also play an important role, the expert group hopes. “In general, cultural heritage has not yet been systematically included in the national education systems of Member States, and the link between cultural heritage and climate change is addressed in hardly any education systems. This is a missed opportunity, as heritage can be used as a vehicle to communicate information on climate change and all its consequences for European societies.”
Not only schoolkids should learn about this connection, but the group hopes that training younger generations with new knowledge and technologies, or revitalising traditional, almost forgotten skills, can lead to effective climate change adaptations.
Schools, museums, heritage and academic institutes, community organisations, ngo’s and media platforms can already take the first step by spreading awareness about the poor state of cultural heritage when it comes to facing climate change. And what solutions might be effective.
The report is eventually summaried by 10 recommendations policy makers and professionals working in the sector can adopt. For example, the report states that better policy is needed to adapt cultural heritage to climate by updating the new European agenda for culture, ensure structured cooperation between different levels of governance, from European to national and local levels. A practical solution could be an assessment map of cultural heritage at risk in Europe, by 2025.
The previously mentioned assessment of economic costs of climate change adaptation for cultural and natural heritage is something the European Commission should take up. A better way of sharing that knowledge would probably help a lot, experts wrote.
Researching and building expertise on the safeguarding of cultural heritage against climate change through education, training and upskilling at all levels is a part of this as well. Apart from education, governments at the national and local-level must encourage investment immediately for the safeguarding of cultural heritage through monetary and fiscal policies.
While all these recommendations make sense, at first sight, it is high time for the politicians of Europe to make the call and take climate change and its consequences for cultural heritage serious. Excellent and clear communication between different levels of government and the EU should be one of the core values: before Europe’s heritage becomes history.