Our world heritage sites – we have 30 of them in the UK including in our overseas territories – are the crème de la crème of our historic treasures. From Stonehenge to the Giant’s Causeway, Durham Cathedral to Ironbridge Gorge, we celebrate them and how fortunate we are to have a strong protective system here, unlike in so many other countries. If we think about the threats to them at all, we worry about encroachment, risks to their settings and – even – the pressure of too many visitors.
But there’s another risk, one that is less easy to spot, but will be more profound in its long-term impact: the threat of climate change. UNESCO has recently pointed out that, together, all its sites (there are 1,000, worldwide) act as something of a global field-observatory, enabling us to study and hopefully anticipate what might happen as our climate warms, storms and changes.
Some of the risks are already apparent – sea-warming triggering coral-bleaching; severe storms causing flooding or storm damage to vulnerable structures; the erosion of archaeological remains, and changing patterns of human occupation of cultural sites. In the long term these pressures may profoundly change our ability to safeguard world heritage sites and will challenge the management regimes needed to protect them. But in the short term there are too many other issues to distract us, and climate change is not top of the list of politicians’ concerns.
Indeed, there may be an even bigger risk to our cultural heritage even than climate change. And that is apathy. A survey of the 66 members of the International National Trusts Organisation, who are spread across the world, for World Heritage Day 2016 asked about the biggest threats facing world-heritage sites. Climate change was there, along with the threats posed by war – with the dreadful damage to Palmyra uppermost in our minds; so too was the threat posed by inappropriate tourism developments. But the biggest threat identified was apathy – the lack of engagement and interest by governments in protecting heritage. All our members reported that their governments were distracted by short-term political and economic priorities. Unless this changes, issues that need a longer-term view will always lose out.
And so, with apathy and climate change combined, our premier global heritage sites face, literally, a perfect storm. It’s time we listened to UNESCO and gave protecting our world’s best heritage the priority it deserves. Lose it, and we lose it for ever.