Participation in the International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change (ICSM CHC)

Kiribati faces the risk of being submerged by increasing sea levels (photo taken in February 2014)

 Currently, climate change is one of the most important issues that need resolution. To that end, the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) was held from October 31st to November 12th, 2021 to tackle this issue on a global scale.

 Climate change is closely linked to the conservation of cultural heritage. For example, large typhoons and heavy rain that are considered common indicators of climate change could damage cultural heritage and museums. Furthermore, rising sea levels caused by climate change could vanish the cultural heritage in coastal areas and at low altitudes. The Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (TOBUNKEN) conducted a survey entitled “The Current State of Cultural Heritage Sites that Are Likely to be Affected by Climate Change” as a “Project for International Contribution to Cultural Heritage Protection (Exchange of Experts)” commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in FY2013; in the project, we made surveys in Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Fiji of the Oceania region which were likely to be affected by climate change.

 In 2021, the International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change (ICSM CHC) was held online from December 6th to 10th and was co-sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It became the first international opportunity to comprehensively discuss the impacts and issues of cultural heritage and climate change. More than 100 experts participated from all over the world. Two experts from Japan participated: ISHIMURA Tomo (this article’s author), Head, Audio-Visual Documentation Section of the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Dr. IWABUCHI Akifumi, Professor of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology and a member of the ICOMOS International Committee on the Underwater Cultural Heritage (ICUCH).

 Prior to this meeting, three preliminary meetings were held online from September to October 2021 in which discussion points were organized and clarified in preparation of the ICSM CHC. The outcomes were then compiled as reports titled “White Papers” on December 1st; these reports formed the basis of discussions during the ICSM CHC.

 Three themes were discussed: 1) Knowledge Systems and Climate Change: Systemic connections of culture, heritage and climate change; 2) Impacts and Climate Change: Loss, damage and adaption for culture and heritage; and 3) Heritage Solutions and Climate Change: Role of culture and heritage in transformative change and alternative sustainable futures. Each theme had a panel discussion, workshop and poster presentations. Preliminarily selected experts participated in the panel discussions which were broadcasted online. Experts participated in the workshops using an online conference platform. Since simultaneous discussion with all participating experts was not practical, the experts were divided into groups of 5 to 10. For the poster presentations, experts posted their posters on the web and participated in related Q&A sessions and discussions using an online conference system.

 Many topics were discussed in the meetings. Currently, the secretariat of the ICSM CHC is compiling the outcomes of discussions and the final report will be published in the first half of 2022.

 I, as a participant in this meeting, strongly feel that people are powerfully connected to cultural heritage, especially intangible cultural heritage, and can thus be spurred to better attend to climate change issues. Many participants said that in the discussion for the theme “Knowledge Systems and Climate Change,” we would need to seriously consider not only “scientific knowledge” but also “indigenous knowledge” and “local knowledge” to address climate change. These are considered equivalent to the so-called “traditional knowledge” that intangible cultural heritage provides. Participants made the claim that, to understand the effects of climate change on cultural heritage, it is essential to incorporate local community knowledge in areas surrounding such heritage. Additionally, many people suggested that the key to solving climate change related issues can be found in indigenous and local knowledge.

 ICOMOS will continue to work on this project to build a framework to pursue the issues of culture, heritage, and climate change. The author, in collaboration with the TOBUNKEN team, will also continue to monitor the situation.

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