The Acropolis in Greece has remained at its perch above Athens for millennia, but the experts who gathered this weekend at the Zappeion Megaron – a striking building at the center of the National Gardens of Athens – were focused on its future rather than its past.
That’s because the Parthenon and other buildings, some of them dating to the 5th century BCE, are increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change. It’s the case for heritage sites around the world, and the two-day conference in Athens focused on how to meet the challenge of protecting the planet’s cultural treasures.
“According to the most reputable scientists, there is no doubt that we are now witnessing an unprecedented increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, including record-high temperatures and forest wildfires, such as those observed last summer in Canada, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Greece,” said President Prokopios Pavlopoulos of Greece. His country was stunned last summer by wildfires in the coastal Attica region that claimed more than 100 lives.
“Unfortunately, our cultural heritage is not spared by these adverse effects of climate change,” he said in his address. “As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest reports clearly demonstrate, unless we act immediately to address climate change, the damage on the integrity of world monuments of an outstanding value may become irreversible.”
Dr. Maria Andreadaki Vlazaki, the general secretary for Greece’s Ministry of Culture & Sports, led a case study on impacts to the Acropolis. She was joined by experts from Armenia, Albania, the Czech Republic and others who are seeking solutions to damaging climate impacts on museums, archaeological sites, undersea shipwrecks and more.
The experts looked at sea level rise, natural disasters and other pressures on cultural heritage, with an eye toward having the issue included on the agenda at the United Nations climate summit in New York in September.
UN Secretary General António Guterres prepared an address to the conference in which he noted that it isn’t just physical treasures that are lost at ancient monuments and sites. The loss of languages, and indigenous or traditional knowledge, can be accelerated by climate-induced migration.
“Culture is powerful source of identity and resilience – and can guide us in responding to the global climate emergency,” Guterres said. “Cultural heritage offers environment-friendly building techniques and agricultural practices. Intangible cultural heritage also includes knowledge about the environment, weather, atmosphere and biodiversity – all underpinning our capacity to adapt.”
Guterres agreed that it’s time to include cultural heritage in the conversations about climate change, and in broader discussions with UNESCO, the UN agency for cultural preservation. UNESCO has had a formal framework for evaluating climate impacts on global heritage sites since 2007.
In 2016, the organization issued a report on tourism and climate change that offered examples from 31 UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites in 29 countries. They include widely recognized sites such as the Galápagos Islands but also lesser-known protected sites, like Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord – already impacted by climate change – and ancient sites in places as diverse as Mauritania and the Philippines.