Impact of Climate Change on Cultural Heritage
From International Policy to Action
By May Cassar
Conservation image

Recent international policy initiatives by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Council of Europe 1 on the impact of climate change on cultural heritage have shown that while it is possible to identify individual climate parameters and the associated risks, the issues cannot be considered in isolation. Cultural heritage exists among people and communities—and because it is linked to social interactions and to ideas of cultural identity and cohesion, it is not possible, in response to climate change, to separate the physical, cultural, and social dimensions of cultural heritage. A multidimensional understanding of the impact of climate change on cultural heritage is required, and decisions on the actions necessary to mitigate the effects—and to adapt to climate change—depend on the input of disciplines that include the arts and humanities and the social sciences, as well as science, technology, and engineering.


Implementing policy requires the application of knowledge to understand problems and to design solutions. When new problems emerge, knowledge needs to be created—and the engine that drives its creation is research. To date, research initiatives on the impact of climate change on cultural heritage are primarily occurring in the United Kingdom and Europe; no concentrated research effort on this subject is happening elsewhere.

The first and most significant research project has been Noah's Ark: Global Climate Change Impact on Built Heritage and Cultural Landscapes.2 The project, undertaken by a consortium of European institutions, produced predictions of the impact of climate and pollution on cultural heritage by investigating the response of historic materials and structures to future climate scenarios for Europe. The research has also helped to improve practice by developing and utilizing heat and moisture movement computer models to examine the effect of climate change on built cultural heritage; by validating model predictions against existing measured data in real buildings; and by using the models to examine the effects of different drying strategies. All of the project's research results were gathered together in a published atlas.3 The project's impact was recognized by the award of the Europa Nostra Grand Prix for Research in 2009.

Implementing policy also requires education and training activities to support the understanding of research outcomes by students and the application of research by practitioners. Recently there have been a number of educational and training initiatives with different emphases on the arts and science disciplines. The Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium held an international colloquium in 2009 on public engagement and social innovation in response to global climate change and heritage conservation.4

Climate change is now among the strategic orientations of the Council of Europe, which sustains the activities of the European University Centre for Cultural Heritage in Ravello, Italy— especially the organization of courses since 2007 on the risks of climate change to cultural heritage.5 Courses are beginning to reflect current thinking about the need to integrate the cultural, social, and scientific dimensions of climate change in order to deliver sustainable solutions on both the human and technological level. In other words, course content is beginning to evolve from being largely science based to include changes in cultural values as a result of climate change.


Moving ahead, we should consider what is promising and what further actions are required.

We need to develop our interdisciplinary approach to research and training.
Social and demographic trends are shaping the future, as are environmental factors. The physical effects of climate change are likely to become increasingly significant as a risk multiplier that can exacerbate existing tensions around the world. The 2007 floods in the United Kingdom—which caused the largest civil emergency response since the Second World War—highlighted the impact that natural disasters can have, even on a fully developed, networked society. Our ability to remain adaptable will be fundamental, as will be our ability to identify risks and opportunities at the earliest possible stage. Recognizing that risks to tangible, intangible, and digital cultural heritage will increase, the European Union's Heads of State and Government launched a Joint Programming Initiative on Cultural Heritage and Global Change, in which the value of relevant national and EU research and development funding will be increased by joint planning among European Ministries of Culture and Ministries of Research.6

We need to focus on damage risks to collections.
This issue was raised by the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) roundtable discussion "Climate Change and Museum Collections," held in London in 2008 as part of the IIC's Dialogues for a New Century. While outdoor materials are affected by changes in temperature, relative humidity (RH), precipitation, wind speed, solar radiation, salts, pollutants, and biomass, collections are altered by somewhat different factors—mold, pollutants, and the rate of fluctuations and extremes of indoor RH and temperature.

An expression used by scientists working in the natural environment and on outdoor cultural heritage is the "damage function." Most of the damage functions that exist for cultural heritage relate to outdoor conditions: chemical attack, heating and cooling cycles, and freeze-thaw cycles for stone and masonry materials, metals, glass, and wood. These do not translate meaningfully to indoor conditions. The IIC roundtable recognized that an intellectual step change is needed in our understanding of damage to cultural heritage caused by climate change. Scientists, working alongside conservators, must develop a range of damage functions for collection materials. The links between damage and climate change can then be modeled for a range of scenarios. But it is important to keep in mind that all models are analogues of reality and cannot replace real data.

We need to influence public behavior.
To do this, we have to go beyond the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There is a wealth of knowledge and understanding in the arts and the humanities that is helping to broaden the debate on climate change by exploring cultural values, creative endeavors, ethics, aesthetics, critical reflection, and historical perspectives. We need to discover the creative meeting points between the arts and humanities and the physical and social sciences in conducting our research on the impact of climate change on cultural heritage.


Climate change is one of the most important issues facing society in the twenty-first century. It poses significant challenges for cultural heritage that are beginning to be tackled by highquality research, practitioner training, policy initiatives, and public engagement. Yet efforts to improve our understanding through both the application of scientific research and initiatives to influence a behavioral response to climate change with artistic and creative activities (such as exhibitions) have, with a few exceptions, developed on separate tracks. In the future we must concentrate on bringing these separate elements together. To quote Peter Gingold, executive director of Tipping Point, an organization at the intersection of culture and climate change, "This issue is about the way we live, it is about who we are, what our relationship is with each other and the planet. And the cultural sector is perfectly positioned, I believe, to hold up a mirror to that and actually show us how we live, [and] … help us develop insights in that."7

May Cassar is the director of the UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage and director of the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies of University College London.

1. For UNESCO and Council of Europe documents, see Key Resources, page 24.
2. European Commission, Noah's Ark: Global Climate Change Impact on Built Heritage and Cultural Landscapes.
3. The Atlas of Climate Change Impact on European Cultural Heritage: Scientific Analysis and Management Strategies, edited by C. Sabbioni, P. Brimblecombe, and M. Cassar (2010).
4. 5th Annual Ename Colloquium, Climates of Heritage Conservation: Responding to the Challenge of Global Climate Change through Public Engagement and Social Innovation, 18th–19th March 2009, Ghent and Ostend.
5. European University Centre for Cultural Heritage (CUEBC ) and the Council of Europe (COE ), "Master Course on Vulnerability of Cultural Heritage to Climate Change."
6. Council of the European Union, "Conclusions on the Launching of Joint Programming Initiatives on 'Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change,' 'Cultural Heritage and Global Change: A New Challenge for Europe,' and 'A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life,'" 3035th Competitiveness Council meeting, Luxembourg, 12 October 2010.
7. Victoria and Albert Museum, "Peter Gingold Focuses on Climate Change and the Cultural Sector."