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UNESCO Report Details How Climate Change Threatens World Heritage Sites

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George Steinmetz, Statue of Liberty (2015), from ‘New York Air’ (image courtesy Abrams Books)

The Statue of Liberty is a favorite victim of Hollywood’s climate change disaster scenarios. Films including The Day After Tomorrow and AI: Artificial Intelligence depict the greened copper monument destroyed by tsunamis and submerged by rising sea levels. The new report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” brings these apocalyptic scenes to mind.

Released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the 108-page document details the threats that climate change poses to World Heritage sites. The Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge, and Easter Island are just a few beloved monuments at risk of degradation from rising sea levels, superstorms, wildfires, worsening droughts, and melting glaciers.

There are more than 1,000 World Heritage sites in 163 countries. The report features in-depth case studies examining 31 at-risk World Heritage properties in 29 countries, focusing on those that are important tourist destinations. These include Venice, Stonehenge, and the Galapagos Islands, as well as South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, the port city of Cartagena, Colombia, and Shiretoko National Park in Japan. The studies were compiled from peer-reviewed science papers, technical reports, and input from local experts, as well as evaluations of individual sites prepared specifically for the World Heritage Committee.

“Climate change is affecting World Heritage sites across the globe,” Adam Markham, lead author of the report and deputy director of the climate and energy program at UCS, said in a statement. “Some Easter Island statues are at risk of being lost to the sea because of coastal erosion. Many of the world’s most important coral reefs, including in the islands of New Caledonia in the western Pacific, have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching linked to climate change this year. Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status.”

The report calls for increased efforts to prevent such damage. “Globally, we need to understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites better,” Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, said in a statement. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”

The case study on the Statue of Liberty evokes the countless films that depict her destruction. “As solid and invulnerable as the Statue of Liberty itself seems, the World Heritage site is actually at considerable risk from some of the impacts of climate change — especially sea-level rise, increased intensity of storms, and storm surges,” the report states. The effects that Hurricane Sandy had on Liberty Island offer a picture of the extent and cost of potential damage from global warming. The hurricane closed the island for nine months, seriously damaging or destroying much of its infrastructure, including electrical, water, sewage, security, and telephone systems. To date, $100 million has been allocated to the Statue of Liberty and adjacent Ellis Island for restoration efforts necessitated by Hurricane Sandy.

The lesson learned, according to the report, is that “100% of the assets at Liberty National Monument are at ‘high exposure’ risk from sea-level rise due to the extremely low elevation of the island and its vulnerability to storms.” The assets at risk on Liberty Island and the neighboring Ellis Island are valued at more than $ 1.5 billion, the report states, but “the intangible cost of future damage to this international symbol of freedom and democracy is incalculable.”

Flooding in Venice (photo by Jörg Bittner [Unna]/Wikimedia Commons)
Flooding in Venice (photo by Jörg Bittner [Unna]/Wikimedia Commons)
Venice, the Italian city of 118 islands connected by canals and bridges, is one of the most endangered World Heritage sites. “The city’s extraordinary assemblage of Byzantine, Gothic, renaissance, and baroque architecture is under immediate threat from rising sea levels,” states the report. Rising sea levels have already begun to wreak havoc, causing more frequent flooding events in the last 60 years, which have damaged many of its famous buildings. The nearly-complete MOSE Project to build giant gates to reduce flooding has cost €5.4 billion (~$6 billion). While these gates will likely temporarily stall flooding in the city, they will not protect Venice’s lagoon. “The water level in the lagoon will continue to rise, eating away at the substance of the buildings as damp spreads up the brickwork,” the report states. Such degradation is a threat not just to the site itself but to the city’s economy, which relies on tourism.

Astronomical funds will be required to preserve World Heritage sites, and adequate funds are not yet available. “The amount available to States Parties requiring international assistance to support site management through the World Heritage Fund totals just US$ 4 million,” the report states, “a drop in the ocean given the scale of response needed for the challenge of climate change.”

The full “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” report is available here.

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