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Climate Change Impacts on the Cultural Sector


Cultural heritage will also be affected by the social impacts of climate change. This includes communities having to move and migrate to avoid the effects of climate change. People and communities are displaced from culturally important places and lose long standing and valuable traditions. Extreme weather events are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to move to other parts of the country each year. Rapidly rising sea levels in Scotland mean that coastal communities may disappear entirely. Many of the islands would be partly submerged and cities and towns on the mainland would also be at risk due to rising water levels.

Displacing communities from their homes can cut social ties and lead to a disruption of cultural practices including food, faith, music and community values. It also leads to a weakened local knowledge on recovery from shocks.

Heritage Sites and Traditional Buildings

Heritage sites have always been subjected to interactions with their environment, however, the radical changes in temperature and weather conditions caused by climate change catalyses the decay of these sites. Many heritage sites are at risk from issues like flooding, coastal erosion, and especially dry summers. These may lead to damage to historic buildings from groundwater, saltwater intrusion, or structural damage from storms. Climate change is also a significant problem for building interiors. Changes in indoor relative humidity can increase the speed of chemical and biological degradation, particularly for collections housed in historic buildings with fewer control measures. This can lead to paper and silk degradation, decay of wooden artefacts and an increase in mould decay just to name a few. As many of Scotland’s museums are in historical buildings this could lead to the damage of culturally significant collections, artefacts, and pieces of history.

Culture and Heritage in Climate Policy

The impacts of climate change on history and culture are often underrepresented in climate policy and research, however these must be addressed to ensure preservation of the heritage of many different areas. Preserving these sites is also important for maintaining traditions, identity, and historical knowledge. The loss of them may lead to a weakening of cultural practices and safety nets which can hinder a community’s ability to recover from disasters.  

We should not only protect these important heritage sites for cultural and historic reasons, but also because they can be used to mitigate and combat the effects of climate change. Some properties can serve as climate change observatories to gather and share information with regards to mitigation and adaptation practices. Not only that, but world heritage sites such as forests, and ocean and coastal ecosystems capture and store CO2 alongside other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. According to a UNESCO report, 50 marine protected World Heritage sites across 37 nations capture and store an estimated 5 billion tonnes of carbon (Source: New study: How UNESCO's World Heritage forests play a vital role in mitigating climate change). These carbon stores equate to about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Protecting these heritage sites is a crucial strategy to not only address climate change and biodiversity loss, but also to mitigate and combat it. 

Group of women walking on grass in front of the Modern One National Galleries Scotland building (Ian Georgeson Photography)
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