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  • INTO’s Climate Change Action

    Posted on August 12, 2014

    By Simon Molesworth, AO, QC and INTO Chair

    AnT2014This article appeard in the Summer 2014 edition of An Taisce Magazine.      

    The International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) has been an active participant in climate change debates. When the INTO Congress met in Dublin in October 2009, coinciding with the 13th ICNT (International Conference of National Trusts) which An Taisce so magnificently hosted, the INTO members present unanimously endorsed the Dublin Declaration on Climate Change. This Declaration, on behalf of the citizens of the global heritage movement, urged world leaders to take strong and decisive action to address climate change and its impacts on heritage through both mitigation strategies that reduce climate change and adaptation strategies to cope with its unavoidable consequences. The ICNT itself had a number of sessions focussed on climate change which included leading presentations by the Hon. Mary Robinson, Professor John Sweeney (President of An Taisce), Dick Moe (then President of the US National Trust for Historic Preservation), and, most movingly, a young 16 year old Irish schoolboy Eamonn Hayes, speaking on behalf of the younger and future generations.

    Following the conference, INTO members throughout the world endorsed the sentiments expressed and thereby endorsed INTO’s pro-activism in this area. Shortly thereafter I led INTO’s first delegation (comprising 5 delegates) to COP15 convened at Copenhagen in December 2009. The COPs –Conferences of the Parties – are convened annually by the UN to focus on the UNFCCC – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. At COP15 we widely distributed copies of an INTO booklet on climate change in which we set out the Dublin Declaration and described National Trust projects from across the globe as exemplars of mitigation and adaptation strategies being implemented.

    Participation in COP15 was followed by a smaller INTO delegation comprising just myself and Oliver Maurice (INTO’s Director of Membership) attending COP16 at Cancun in Mexico in November 2010. Due to my then recent appointment as a professor in La Trobe University’s La Trobe Institute for Social & Environment Sustainability, the costs of INTO’s delegation were largely funded. This support continued for COP17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011, and COP18 in Doha, Qatar, in 2012. In Durban Geoffrey Read (INTO’s Director of Special Projects) joined the delegation as did Timothy Molesworth (international affairs consultant) in Doha.

    Prior to COP17 in Durban, INTO members gathered again at the 14th ICNT in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, in October 2011, where again the INTO Congress adopted, unanimously, a new declaration dealing with climate change – The Victoria Declaration on the Implications for Cultural Sustainability of Climate Change. The Victoria Declaration took the focus of INTO’s climate change campaigning a few steps further by specifically drawing out the failure of the international deliberations of the UN and national governments to sufficiently acknowledge the implications of climate change for the sustainability of culture. INTO’s participation in COP15 and 16 had confirmed its concerns that cultural heritage was not even on the agenda, despite the fact that the implications for sustaining cultures were and are dire in the face of climate change.

    INTO argues in its Victoria Declaration that the failure to communicate the threat of climate change in terms which describe the dire implications for cultural identity, diversity and sustainability and consequential social degradation fundamentally weakens the prospects for global reform to combat climate change. We stated that climate change has the capacity to substantially undermine the integrity of the world’s cultures, altering most, if not all, and destroying many. INTO determined that it could not stand by and witness this impact occurring as the destruction of culture is a fundamental breach of the principle of intergenerational equity, in that a culture destroyed or diminished within the time of the current eneration will deprive members of future generations of their right to their cultural inheritance. This principle has been confirmed in many UNESCO Conventions.

    History has shown that the obliteration of a culture can lead to social annihilation, for instance where the connectivity between a people and their place and their history has been destroyed. The intangible importance of cultural relationships, such as “a sense of place” of a people, is critical to their social identity, diversity and sustainability. The cultural connectivity between a living people and their historical roots engenders pride of place and a spirit to defend it at all costs. Climate change is the current generation’s most fearsome threat most likely to undermine all people’s cultures thus destroying the integrity and continuity of those cultures as we know them.

    INTO has campaigned arguing that, for the sake of future generations, we must collectively tackle climate change not just because of changes in the physical environment, not just for reasons of sustaining human health and welfare, but to recognise that the core strength and connectivity of all the socio-economic systems of humankind, is maintaining cultural identity, diversity and sustainability. We say that if the global community acts too slowly in response to climate change, or acts insufficiently, the cultural legacy for those that follow the current generation will be irreparably diminished.

    INTO and its member National Trusts have the capacity to demonstrate that cultural heritage holds not only the record of past successes and failures to adapt to climate change but also the record of successful ways of minimising greenhouse gas emissions and thereby shows how climate change may be mitigated. Our perspective of resource conservation involving soil, energy, water and other natural components of our biosphere can demonstrate that a wise and balanced approach to sustainable land management is achievable. Throughout the National Trust movement, there are many exemplary management approaches that convey a strong, practical and positive message.

    A few have questioned whether it is appropriate for INTO to involve itself, on behalf of the National Trust movement, in the climate change debates. In response, I ask the reader to ponder this question: what is at the heart of the heritage conservation work of National Trusts? I suggest it is work focused on the cultural and natural values of places, celebrating them and seeking ways by which they can be better conserved and appreciated in perpetuity. In focusing on values to be preserved and the need for conservation action to safeguard them, I believe there is absolutely no distinction between identifying threats against heritage as might be manifested in the form of inappropriate development insensitively sited within a heritage precinct or poor town planning on the one hand; and identifying climate change as such a threat on the other hand – save that with the latter the threat is somewhat more all-encompassing.

    National Trusts are not all experts in climate change science, but we are expert in understanding the social and cultural implications of climate change. So INTO has not been talking about the science of climate change, rather we have been talking about the ramifications of climate change and what society ought to be doing about it. We have been describing the implications of climate change in terms of its impact on culture and societal values (which includes the values we identify in natural places and processes) and the manifestations of culture, being our heritage. We have the capacity to talk about climate change in terms and in language that has a greater chance to be understood across the widest spread of communities.

    On the other hand, scientists often tend to use language, or cite examples of impacts, which effectively “talk” to other scientists. As a consequence of this “communication” trait which has characterised the discussion of climate change, the broader community often “switches off ” or becomes dismissive, erroneously believing that the impacts will be largely irrelevant to the continuation of the things that are important to them in their everyday lives. I maintain that across the globe, sadly, the debates about climate change have been largely hijacked by language that does not resonate with the wider population. Without the wider population being truly engaged, the political processes involving, ideally, politicians listening to and acting in response to their constituency fails. In the climate change field, as a consequence of the failings in communication, politicians then tend to only hear the extremists at either side of the debate without appreciating that the wider community is in fact concerned or would be concerned – if only they understood the impacts on their way of life in terms meaningful to them. INTO’s actions are directed at addressing this issue. In talking about climate change in meaningful terms, terms which resonate with people’s values, INTO and National Trusts have a unique opportunity to influence.

    In both the areas of mitigation and adaptation, National Trusts are strategically positioned. With mitigation, National Trust properties can be used as exemplars, in addition to actually achieving real material benefits on their own properties for themselves. Conserving energy, soil and water, safeguarding natural places, and reusing built structures, National Trust actions are mitigating emissions. With adaptation, the National Trust involvement is critical to influencing political leaders to start thinking about how we might safeguard cultural values in to the future. We must devise strategies by which cultures, and the heritage legacies of them, are sustained in a changed and changing world. This is no different to the role National Trusts have always played in the face of other threats, such as ill-considered destruction: conservation action has always looked for alternatives, safeguarded the best, ensured photographic, scientific and oral records are maintained.

    INTO must continue to perform this role as, quite frankly, there are virtually no others in the climate change area performing a similar role. This statement may surprise, but sadly a review of UN debates, a close examination of the terms of the Conventions and a review of which organisations are contributing to the international climate change “discussions” will reveal an absence of focus on cultural sustainability. It is true that UNESCO has been a (quietly spoken) player at the COPs, as have been a number of indigenous peoples through their leadership organisations, but comparatively the cultural sector has been almost unseen and unheard. One of the key roles that INTO members have asked of INTO – one of the rationales for their continuing membership – has been to provide models, examples of best practice, projects that can be exemplars of action that might be taken to better safeguard their heritage.

    Entirely consistent with this “need”, INTO’s climate change work, in part, fulfils this need. Another aspect of INTO’s climate change work which is fulfilled by our proactive stance, has been to be seen as a global voice for those of our members who would not otherwise be heard. The majority of our INTO members are relatively small organisations (nevertheless important within their nations) and are often impecunious (with all their funds being allocated to critical heritage conservation activity and operational needs). In this context, few INTO members have been able to afford dedicated officers working on climate change issues or broader sustainability issues. By supporting INTO’s climate change work these INTO members, in fact the majority, have been pleased that via INTO their views supporting action have been collectively fulfilled without themselves directly allocating scare resources.

    So as a concluding summary, INTO maintains that if the threat of climate change is largely, or even solely, described in terms of impacts on physical processes, as has been occurring in the UN debates for too long, then the prospect of achieving global consensus for climate change action will always be undermined. However, if the threats of climate change are also couched in terms of culture – of societal values – we believe there is likely to be greater responsiveness across the global community. Put in terms of cultural identity, diversity and sustainability, the path to wider community understanding and so support for climate change action (both mitigation and adaptation) should be more achievable. There will be engendered a greater willingness to embrace essential reforms. With this perspective  INTO has maintained its presence within the climate change debates believing it is essential to do so as, sadly, few others are espousing such views.

    This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of An Taisce Magazine and is available on line.


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