The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

World Heritage Sites, including Statue of Liberty and Stonehenge, threatened by climate change, UNESCO says

In August 2010, a meteor flies over Stonehenge in Salisbury Plain, England. (Reuters)

The catastrophes seem like the stuff Roland Emmerich’s dreams are made of: In the United States, Yellowstone National Park morphs from thick woods to sparser brushland in the aftermath of frequent and furious forest fires. In Italy, Venice sinks beneath a swelling Adriatic Sea. In England, Stonehenge tumbles to the ground when the local mole and badger populations explode and their burrows weaken the earth beneath the 5,000-year-old rock monuments.

None of these disasters are certain to come to pass. But they are, to varying degrees, possible. Across the globe, World Heritage Sites, some of the planet’s most precious places, are under a slow but potentially devastating assault from climate change, according to a new United Nations report. In the past, looting and mismanagement have permanently altered or destroyed World Heritage Sites. But if the planet continues to warm at current rates, climate change may find itself listed alongside Taliban dynamite as a reason for such destruction.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published the report on Thursday, in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based advocacy group. It does not waste time debating the facts of climate change: There is, the report notes, “unequivocal scientific evidence” that the atmosphere contains more carbon dioxide today than it did at any time going back for 800,000 years. 

Although climate change is a global phenomenon, the report underscores the fact that the local symptoms of a hotter planet take diverse forms. Of the roughly 1,000 World Heritage locations spread around the globe, the paper focuses on a comparative handful — a review of 31 sites, in 29 countries, each which may respond to global warming differently. At the poles, glaciers melt, which in turn raises the ocean and threatens Heritage Sites like Easter Island with erosion. It is increasingly clear that climate change stacks the deck in favor of extreme weather phenomena and can exacerbate the drought at the archaeological remains of Jordan’s Wadi Rum.

Climate change, as the report notes, is a so-called threat multiplier — it worsens existing dangers not directly related to climate. Consider Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, which is home to about half of the mountain gorillas left in the wild: The combination of climate change and tourism, UNESCO said, means the great apes are at greater risk of catching human diseases.

Researchers predict that as the mountains warm and farmers move up the slopes, great apes will have less jungle to roam, making each gorilla band more likely to encounter tourists. Gorillas are not immune to certain microbes humans carry; the UNESCO report cites a recent scabies outbreak that killed a young ape as evidence that ecological tourism, even when well-intentioned, can put the animals under stress.

Man-made icons, too, are not spared simply by dint of their synthetic nature. “As solid and invulnerable as the Statue of Liberty itself seems, the World Heritage site is actually at considerable risk from some of the impacts of climate change — especially sea-level rise, increased intensity of storms and storm surges,” according to the report. Across the Atlantic, at Stonehenge, the scientists wrote that milder winters “are likely to bring higher populations of burrowing mammals including badgers, moles and rabbits, which may destabilize stonework and disturb buried archaeological deposits.”

The UNESCO report includes recommendations for governments and the tourism sector. It is also aware that not all parties have the option to build $6 billion floodgates, like Venice has planned, or the $59 million that the United States, for instance, may spend repairing Liberty Island after Hurricane Sandy.

“Can we save every lighthouse that is on an eroding cliff? Probably not,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Adam Markham, the lead author of the report, to the New York Times. “So there are going to have to be hard choices made in every country.”

Throughout the report, UNESCO refers to December’s landmark Paris agreement to keep the planet below a 2˚C increase over pre-industrial temperatures. As Markham wrote on the Union of Concerned Scientists website, “The planet’s thermometer is already at 1˚C, so there is no time to lose.”

But the report is less clear on what to do should governments attempt to disrupt the accord — not an impossible scenario. On Thursday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told an audience at a North Dakota conference, per Reuters, “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.”

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In fact, the UNESCO report itself reflects governmental intervention, according to a Guardian investigation. An earlier draft referenced Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is threatened by climate change. But that section was removed under pressure from the Australian government, the Guardian reported, because the country’s Department of Environment was worried about negative impacts on tourism. A representative for the department told Guardian Australia that the “framing of the report confused two issues” of tourism and climate change.

Australian National University climate expert Will Steffen, who authored the Barrier Reef section, told the newspaper the omission is like something out of the “old Soviet Union.”

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