The impacts of the Earth’s changing climate are at best an abstraction for many people. But as these changes continue at rates now exceeding many scientific forecasts, some are already suffering its effects – including being forced to leave their homes in search of new places to live. Some of these effects, such as sea level rise, can put land completely underwater, making it uninhabitable. Others, like drought, make it impossible for people to support themselves. We now have a word for these persons – climate refugees, and their numbers are increasing. What’s more, their saga presages a perhaps even bigger issue, the eventual need for the planned relocation of numerous at-risk communities in the US and around the world.
By many accounts, the international community has been slow to respond to the prospects of large numbers of climate refugees. Where it has, the emphasis has been on individual resettlement, migration management and humanitarian concerns. But as entire populations lose their lands, what becomes of their historic and sacred sites? When not just individuals but communities are displaced, how can their cultures be conserved? Their traditional knowledge retained? These questions are the domain of historic preservationists and yet mainstream cultural heritage organizations have largely been absent from the climate refugee conversation.
Overall, the looming importance of the climate mobility issue can no longer be ignored. The Paris Agreement produced at COP21 in 2015 recognized this and assigned one of the branches of the UN climate change, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, “to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” To do this, the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism has put out a call for information related to migration, displacement and human mobility. Whether the enormous heritage implications of these issues will actually be addressed, however, has not been certain. Fortunately, a group of historic preservation professionals from the US and abroad has mobilized to try to ensure that the answer is yes.
In 2015 a coalition of mostly US-based cultural heritage groups, including US/ICOMOS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, issued the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage. Importantly, these groups went on record that cultural heritage is a human right, one being put at risk by climate change. Within the Pocantico Framework, a number of heritage professionals have formed a series of informal working groups to help represent cultural heritage voices and expertise in international climate policy discussions, processes and decisions. One of these groups aims to focus precisely on issues related to human mobility, as well as to climate change and heritage issues centered on Nature-Culture interlinkages, Oceans, the Cryosphere, and traditional knowledge.
The group has issued an open request to heritage practitioners with relevant expertise to make submissions as part of the Warsaw Mechanism process. Relevant submissions can include information on:
(1) the role of cultural heritage as a tool for integration and social cohesion amidst relocation; (2) the need to preserve where possible and/or document and memorialize the tangible heritage left behind by displaced communities; and (3) the need to conserve the Intangible Heritage, Traditional Knowledge, and movable heritage of displaced persons’ and communities’.
The idea is to get as much information “on the record” as possible both for the work of the Warsaw Mechanism and the historic preservation community’s own database of past, current, and future projects pertaining to cultural heritage and climate mobility. The ultimate purpose of this effort is to help policy makers understand the relevance of cultural heritage to the displacement and emplacement of peoples and communities arising from climate change and climate change mitigation measures.
These stirrings of the historic preservation community come at critical juncture as recent developments have dramatized the simple reality that the U.S. already has communities being displaced by climate impacts.