When people pause to consider the implications of the climate crisis, generally only a select few images and ideas spring to mind. The term ‘climate’ may evoke thoughts of sweltering hot summers and icy winters, sudden deluges and other extreme climatic events. It may also elicit questions about rising sea levels, such as what this process will mean for low-lying countries. The idea of ‘crisis’ could be linked, in some people’s minds, with the various economic crises that have occurred over the past several decades. It is also a term that has often been used to describe the Covid-19 pandemic, which has now been causing global disorder for over a year. While these are all valid connections to make, the reach of the climate crisis is much broader: in fact, in some way or other, it affects every aspect of modern life and culture. Heritage is one of the most notable industries that is threatened by the climate crisis, and our failure to acknowledge and act upon this fact may have devastating consequences.
When I used to volunteer at a National Trust property called Wightwick Manor, I remember that there was a huge tapestry which was partially faded from exposure to the light coming in through the window opposite. When I reflect upon this, I am struck by the fact that such important pieces of art, furniture, and other objects are so prone to being damaged by even the most routine and benign of natural processes. Often, these are items that tell a story about a certain historical moment, and perhaps even chronicle the lives of a specific group of people. Without them, we lose the tangibility of such narratives. While many heritage sites and historic buildings are adept at controlling the light and humidity levels in a stoic attempt to preserve these items as best as possible, the climate crisis is making this increasingly difficult. In recent years, we have seen evidence that global warming is causing more extreme and frequent climatic events, and so it seems inevitable that many historic items will be damaged or lost if sites are not adequately prepared.
The National Trust acknowledges that “[c]limate change is the single biggest threat to the precious landscapes and historic houses [it] care[s] for”, and it has even created an interactive tool that predicts the future effects of overheating, storm damage, slope failure, and soil heave on its properties. While heritage sites and historic buildings can certainly adapt to the changing climate, this will require a constant flow of available funding and resources. After all, the effects of the climate crisis will only increase in severity over time, and so heritage sites will need to devise and implement increasingly robust preventative measures. It therefore seems likely that some historic buildings and grounds will become casualties of the climate crisis, unable to gather together the funds and personnel to respond adequately to the changing environment.
One of the most pressing questions that remains is: what do we stand to lose? For many university students, the pandemic has deprived us of our access to physical resources and on-campus facilities, and our learning experience has suffered as a result. If we are to lose historic buildings such as those cared for by the National Trust, or some of the artwork and furniture that they contain, future generations will have difficulty understanding the lifestyles and preoccupations of people in the past. Furthermore, Covid-19 has highlighted for many the importance of a walk in a beautiful natural environment, and some people have flocked to the grounds of their local heritage sites for their daily activity. We therefore not only stand to lose invaluable opportunities for learning, but also for leisure and relaxation.
While it may initially seem odd to consider heritage alongside environmental issues such as the climate crisis, it is important that we begin to think about the multiplicity of ways that global warming is having an impact upon our day-to-day lives. By shifting our mindset in this way and aspiring towards a more comprehensive view of the climate crisis, I believe that we will be in a much better place to work towards real, positive environmental action.
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