According to a 2023 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, about three in four Americans believe that global warming is happening. A slightly smaller majority understand that it is mostly human-caused. But fewer than half believe people in the United States are being harmed “right now” by global warming, and even fewer say they have personally experienced its effects.
The numbers tell an interesting story: we believe it is happening, right now, but not to us. We do not see—or perhaps have not been given the tools to understand—the harm it is causing to our lives. Tenths of degrees in temperature change aren’t easily felt by the average person, so perhaps we need a different approach to understanding climate change to communicate the harmful effects we are seeing right now, all over the world.
In September, the Smithsonian’s Center for Environmental Justice at the Anacostia Community Museum hosted the Women’s Environmental Leadership Summit, convening current leaders and aspiring changemakers to examine various aspects of environmentalism and discuss best practices for community-centered advocacy. Among the discussions of the weekend was an exploration of the climate-related impacts putting living cultural heritage at risk, and the relevant efforts of mitigation and adaptation. Led by Amber Kerr, chief of conservation for the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the conversation included perspectives from Dr. Shanondora Billiot, an assistant professor in social work, Dr. Marcy Rockman of Lifting Rocks LLC, and Ashley Rogers, executive director of the Whitney Plantation.
What does it mean to lose cultural heritage to climate change? What does it look like? At the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, our researchers and folklorists have been asking these kinds of questions for years, exploring the cultural dimensions of climate change through research, education, and public programming. To understand, we have to look at both tangible and intangible heritage.
Tangible cultural heritage is most visible: it is the objects, buildings, monuments, instruments, artifacts, and other tactile things that make up our human cultures. These things and places are affected by climate change in a number of ways. Increased heat means higher risk of fires and stress to culturally significant plants and crops. Coastal erosion and sea-level rise lead to flooding and structural damage. Increased and intensified natural disasters mean destruction to buildings.
In 2021, Hurricane Ida became the second-most damaging and intense hurricane to hit Louisiana, behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Many historic structures were damaged, and some destroyed, by the storm’s high winds and heavy rains, including Whitney Plantation, one of the only historic sites in the United States focused on the experience of American slavery. Executive director Ashley Rogers shared the struggle of trying to get government assistance after the storm.
“The whole conversation is about property value,” she lamented. “And what is a slave cabin ‘worth.’ Having these conversations in capitalism is breaking my brain. This is the most valuable thing on the planet. It tells the story of people’s families and generations, resilience, and struggle, and it’s one of the only ones left. But yeah, it’s not ‘worth’ anything.”
After Hurricane Ida, Rogers amended the narrative at Whitney Plantation to include the harmful impacts of climate change on historic sites. But she was met with some confusion from visitors.
“At Whitney, the only thing I can do is just try to put this up in front of people, even if they don’t want to hear it. They were like, ‘why are you talking about climate change?’ And I was like, ‘why are you not talking about climate change?’ I want everyone to understand that there’s no history over here, science over here, climate change over here, arts over here. It’s all one thing.”
Buildings and other physical structures are not the only things at risk in our changing climate. The potential loss of intangible cultural heritage also looms. UNESCO defines intangible heritage as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills that individuals and communities recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
Since 2009, UNESCO has maintained a list system cataloging intangible elements of cultural heritage: one containing those in need of urgent safeguarding, and another of those that “help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.” The non-urgent list includes a delightful diversity from the staple French baguette to Catalonian human towers and Japanese washi paper. Those in need of urgent protection include Mongolian calligraphy, Ukrainian borscht cooking, and Egyptian traditional hand puppetry, among many others.
Intangible cultural heritage can be threatened by a variety of factors: military conflict, globalization, development, assimilation, and, among others, climate change. Traditional foodways may change when communities are forced to relocate due to severe weather. Communities may lose Native languages and words specific to elements and interactions in the local natural environment. Plant species used in certain crafts or religious ceremonies may no longer grow in altered conditions or may become vulnerable to invasive species or new pests. Sites that were traditional gathering places or rooted in a place’s history can be damaged by fires or storms. These intangible elements that make us human and give us a sense of connection to the place we occupy—all of these can disappear when our environment is disrupted by climate change.
In the United States, intangible cultural heritage is especially endangered due to the lack of its inclusion in federal definitions.
“The National Park Service is the lead U.S. federal agency for cultural heritage, but it’s not in its name, which gives it this aura of invisibility,” Dr. Marcy Rockman shared. Rockman served with NPS as the climate change adaptation coordinator for cultural resources for over seven years, prior to establishing her consulting business. “The legislation that defines and that gives those responsibilities to the National Park Service, it defines heritage as things. It is objects. If you read the National Historic Preservation Act, which was passed in 1966, it has big flowery language at the opening about the importance of history. But you get down into it, and it is buildings, it is historic property, it is a place. It is very tangible.”
Intangible cultural heritage also holds solutions and information about adaptation outside of traditional Western climate science. While science tells us that mitigation and adaptation are necessary, it cannot tell us what adaptation solutions are most workable within any given community. The practices, expressions, and knowledge of a culture are a vessel for their values. When these cultural values are incorporated into climate adaptation planning, the solutions developed are those that are best aligned with the principles of that community, and therefore more likely to be sustainable and successful.
“I don’t think that we’re bringing enough emotion into the conversation about climate change,” Rogers shared. “It’s not just about science. It’s not just about recycling. It’s about losing our connection to ourselves and losing our connection to our past.”
This connection to the past is inherently intertwined with a connection to the land for many communities. Dr. Shanondora Billiot is a citizen of the United Houma Nation (UHN) in Louisiana, a state that loses over thirty-five square miles of land per year to coastal erosion. Terrebonne Parish, located in the southern part of the state, accounts for over sixty percent of Louisiana’s total land loss, an amount greater than the size of Delaware. The parish includes Isle de Jean Charles, a Louisiana peninsula that members of both the UHN and the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees (IDC) called home.
In 2016, the people of Isle de Jean Charles became known as the “first American climate refugees” when the state of Louisiana was awarded $48.3 million in Community Development Block Grant funds to “work with residents […] to develop and implement a structured and voluntary retreat from the island into safer communities.” The new site, located forty miles north, was selected with input from members of both the UHN and IDC due to it being higher, safer, and a more resilient location.
“At the time, there were twenty-five homes with more than one hundred people living on the island that were there prior to being removed. A majority of the residents didn’t have industry-type jobs. They were subsistence earners. They made their living off of the water and the land. Their families were buried on this land. Their sense of self was intimately tied up with the place. How do we keep our cultural heritage when we have to remove ourselves from place?”
Heritage and cultural values are assets in mitigating the effects of climate change. So what is being done to address the threat that climate change poses to cultural heritage?
There has been a significant growth in the amount of scholarship about this topic in recent years, and more international organizations are rallying around an intersectional approach to climate action.
Following the introduction of the 2015 Paris Agreement, an unprecedented international treaty focused on limiting global warming, many heritage organizations began to introduce considerations of climate change into their work. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) committed themselves to “mobilizing the cultural heritage community for climate action” in 2017, and two years later launched the Climate Heritage Network (CHN). This network, which recently brought in ninety-two new member organizations, brings together actors in the climate and culture sectors with the purpose of fostering collaboration and reorienting climate policy and action.
But the World Heritage Committee recently voted against putting Venice, Italy, on UNESCO’s list of endangered places, despite serious flooding and structural damage in recent years due to sea level rise. In fact, the committee has yet to include any site that is threatened by climate change on the endangered list, and it will wait until 2024 to consider the addition of the Great Barrier Reef. The longer these committees wait to engage with the climate crisis, the more damage we will see and the less capable we will be of adapting and mitigating impacts.
A meeting of the culture-climate minds—a cultural climate-action supergroup, if you will—convened in December 2021. This meeting, which took place over four days, was a collaboration between UNESCO, ICOMOS, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The outcome was a comprehensive report describing the intersections of culture, heritage, and climate science, and a 2022-24 Action Plan to accomplish two main goals: “to increase the quantity and quality of culture-based climate action, and to transform climate policy by using culture and heritage to embed in climate policy making at all levels.”
These reports make it clear that mitigating the impacts of climate change involves not only scientists, policymakers, and corporations but also folklorists, cultural practitioners, and tradition bearers. With the goal of promoting holistic approaches to conservation and educating the world about why and how sustainable solutions to climate change can benefit both people and nature, the Smithsonian launched its Life on a Sustainable Planet initiative in 2022. The program recruits the talent of the institution’s scientific researchers, curators, educators, and more to develop scalable strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change at the intersection of science and culture.
A cornerstone of this program is the Earth Optimism initiative, an endeavor that seeks to change the climate-change narrative from one of doom and gloom to one of hope and opportunity. From youth programs, in-person summits, virtual lectures, and story circles, Earth Optimism aims to inspire all individuals to think about the role they can play in building a sustainable future. In 2022, a collaboration between Earth Optimism and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival brought storytellers, activists, scientists, artists, and more to the National Mall, inviting visitors to explore “new ways of living, learning, and working toward a shared sustainable future.”
Our current heightened level of international collaboration and commitment to identifying synergies across cultural heritage and climate science is a huge step forward. Unlocking the potential of culture-based climate action opens the door to development that is truly sustainable for people and the planet. But what’s missing?
As valuable as the work of these networks and organizations is, we are still experiencing a knowledge gap. The average person is not reading hundreds of pages of scientific reports and white papers. The CHN’s action plan does establish a task force for communication, but its inclusion at the very end of their list of strategies and tactics makes it feel like an afterthought. As far as messaging to the public about heritage loss, traditional media coverage has different priorities than conservationists.
“I recently had a conversation with a well-known climate reporter at one of our major news media outlets, and I was talking about the federal capacity for heritage and climate—and that it’s basically nil—and some of the experiences that I’ve had,” Rockman shared in the panel discussion. “And his response was, ‘Well, that’s not a story. I need to know what we’ve lost, and it needs to be something good. That is when I can take it to an editor. We need to have lost it first because that makes a story.’”
Rockman smirked and continued: “I know if you write that story, if we lose something ‘good,’ there will be a sentence in there: ‘How could we have prevented this?’ So there’s that sense that heritage is only a value once we’ve lost it.”
How do we encourage people to develop a sense of care for a place , before they lose something “good”? In many instances, when individuals or communities do demonstrate an inclination to care for their cultural heritage, they are met with derision or portrayed as ignorant to risk.
“One thing that I noticed after moving to Louisiana is that everybody thinks climate change is happening to someone else,” Rogers reported. “And there’s a lot of derision around people who live in famously vulnerable places. I didn’t live in Louisiana for Katrina, but I heard the ‘well, why would you even build it back?’ I heard it all the time. But then after moving to Louisiana, I felt like when I heard that from people, it just felt violent. Everybody doesn’t understand that we’re all vulnerable. Everybody lives in a vulnerable place—and that if you lose New Orleans, the whole world loses something.”
Rockman echoed this sentiment, recalling two recent Washington Post articles about the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy on the tenth anniversary and the 2022 floods in Kentucky: “Both of them pointed to people who had decided not to leave, to not take the buyouts, because each of the people interviewed said, ‘This is my home. I don’t want to leave. I care about this place. This is what I know.’ The article said they’re allowing themselves to skew their understanding of risk. It set them as being silly and illogical, and they weren’t being rational.
“We think about heritage as a kind of care and knowledge of place, but we’re not allowing a major portion of the population to care about the places in which we live ,” Rockman continued. “My brain starts feeling like, ‘how did climate change come to be? Because we don’t care!’ We haven’t been allowed to care about our environment and our atmosphere! And people are being shut down and shamed for saying, ‘I care about this place, and I don’t want to leave it.’”
When people understand that it is not just the planet but their own sense of self and connection to their history that is threatened by climate change, that is when the climate movement can drive human, emotional responses, change public opinion, and stir people to action. So how do we communicate the power of a culture-based climate approach to people and organizations outside of high-level policymaking and academia? How do we build a sense of care of place? These questions do not accommodate a one-size-fits-all approach.
One way that this new framework is reaching individuals and smaller, local organizations is through an emerging consultancy niche. Rockman’s Lifting Rocks, LLC, helps individuals, communities, and organizations “find and elevate human connections from and with the past in their approaches to climate change.”
In addition to consultancies, many more “traditional” climate scientists are now pivoting to an interdisciplinary approach that promotes the preservation of cultural heritage.
In 2022, Dr. Victoria Herrmann was named to Apolitical’s list of 100 most influential people in climate policy, alongside Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. Herrmann served as managing director of The Arctic Institute for several years prior to being selected as a 2021-2022 White House Fellow working on climate policy. For most of her career, she saw herself strictly as a climate advocate—until 2016, when she and her research partner Eli Keene set out across the United States to interview coastal communities about the impact of climate change on their lives and cultures. This project, America’s Eroding Edges, laid bare the intimate connection between climate change and cultural heritage.
Building on her previous work, Herrmann co-founded Rise Up to Rising Tides, a matchmaking platform to connect pro bono experts with climate-affected communities. The project seeks to protect, preserve, and celebrate the diverse cultural heritage of millions of Americans who are at risk of being displaced. By empowering communities with scientific knowledge and technical training, groups are then equipped to create their own people- and culture-centered climate-adaptation plans.
In an interview for National Geographic, Herrmann elaborates on the ethos behind her current work: “Climate change, at its core, is a story about losing the things that make us who we are, and the way we tell this story and find climate change solutions has to include our history and our culture and these intimate parts of us.”
Projects like Herrmann’s empower communities facing the threats of climate change to establish plans of adaptation that reflect their unique culture and community identity. But how can we go further to gain the buy-in of individuals who believe their lives are less—or not—affected by climate change now but stand to face risks in the future?
Environmental education and sustainability education need to be reimagined to integrate cultural heritage, and new technology opens up a world of possibilities to do this effectively. Heritage on the Edge is an augmented-reality experience from CyArk and ICOMOS showcasing the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage in a highly visual, accessible way.
The multimedia experience takes viewers through cultural heritage sites currently impacted by the effects of climate change and dives into the dimensions of faith, place, and heritage that are at risk. Seeing iconic sites physically impacted, such as the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) statues, can incite a powerful emotional response in individuals and motivate them to consider dimensions of climate-change impacts beyond environmental damage.
Andrew Potts, ICOMOS’ Climate Change and Heritage Working Group coordinator, writes in an introduction to the project: “Heritage is really the cumulative memory of humankind and the memory of communities. It anchors us to place. It is something from which we derive our identity. It gives us a grounding in the world. Without heritage, people lack that anchoring, that identity, that sense of community. The glue that holds us all together. And so when climate change loosens those bonds, it loosens the community.”
As we imagine what a climate movement that incorporates arts and heritage looks like, the bounds of typical communication and creativity demand to be pushed. How can we incorporate climate change into the stories that we tell in television and film?
Natural history documentaries like The Territory go beyond a traditional scientific lens to incorporate cultural elements. When the filmmakers hand cameras to the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people in Brazil, they tell their own story of deforestation and illegal settlers threatening their culture, traditions, traditional foods, and medicinal plants as they fight to protect their ancestral homelands.
A study from Good Energy, a nonprofit story consultancy supporting writers in incorporating a climate-change lens into their narratives, revealed that less than three percent of scripted TV and film acknowledge climate change. If, as Herrmann emphasized, the story of climate change is a human story about “losing the things that make us who we are,” then why are we not proportionately representing its impact on humanity in the media that we consume?
Beyond what we see on screens, we can meet people where they are with the cultural dimensions of climate change. The Climate Museum in New York City leverages the credibility and popularity of museums to contend with the climate crisis by way of art, culture, and dialogue. The 2022 Folklife Festival’s Earth Optimism program invited visitors to shift their perspectives on climate change with action-oriented presentations and solution-based programming. Incorporating traditional foodways, art installations, and film screenings, the program featured a culture-focused approach to conservation action on a local-to-global scale. Beyond the in-person programming, the collaborative Festival also produced blog posts, playlists, and more multimedia resources to empower and mobilize a global community of individuals passionate about climate action.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our reality. We can simultaneously acknowledge the real risks we are facing and the accompanying loss that is already occurring, and also hold onto the hope that our ancestors have adapted and we can do the same. It is not possible to develop truly equitable, sustainable, and meaningful solutions to the impacts of climate change without incorporating cultural heritage.
Not everyone has the time or access to read scientific journals detailing the impacts of a changing climate, but we all know what it means to be human. To save our sense of humanity, we must save the ground we stand on.
Looking to learn more about cultural preservation and climate action? Discover resources from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage:
- Learn about the importance of Indigenous and Black leadership in the climate movement in a Folklife Magazine article by Mali Obomsawin
- Watch films from the Pocket Cinema at the 2022 Earth Optimism × Folklife Festival program
- Dive into a digital lecture series from our curators about cultural heritage documentation, presentation, and preservation
- For younger climate activists, explore the Earth Optimism Reading Guide for Kids
- Read stories from the Earth Optimism × Folklife program on the Festival Blog
Grace Bowie is a communications professional based in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about impactful storytelling at the nexus of nature, culture, and conservation. She has worked with Jackson Wild, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, National Geographic Society, Sundance Film Festival, and more, elevating their digital content and storytelling.