The Erosion of History: Climate Change and the Loss of Intangible Cultural Heritage

By Lily Harkes

The threat of climate disaster and its physical impact on the global environment and human life are becoming increasingly more visible every day. Gradual changes in temperature, wind intensity, and sea level rise have increased the frequency of climate disasters, devastating physical infrastructure and human lives.1 But what about the more invisible impacts? This blog post seeks to explore the human and cultural costs of climate change and its connection to art and physical monuments. What are the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage sites? How do these impacts signal the need for action to both preserve cultural heritage sites and their surrounding environment? And lastly, how do legacies of colonialism and exploitation influence the extent to which certain regions are made vulnerable to the effects of climate change and their ability to mitigate risk? The answers to these questions are complex and require in-depth analysis and dialogue with local communities. However, this blog post can serve as a starting point for probing these issues and considering the varied and sometimes more subtle consequences of climate change. 

The Impact

Cultural heritage can be defined as ‘tangible (e.g. monuments, historic buildings, cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, historic objects) and intangible (e.g. knowledge, performing arts, social practices, oral traditions and expressions) resources, inherited from the past and created in the course of time by the people and/or their interaction with the environment.’2 The physical effects of climate change can include the slow degradation of historical buildings, sculptures, and monuments or total destruction of monuments due to natural disasters/crises. The visible consequences of climate change on monuments are seen across the world. In Agra, India, the once pristine Taj Mahal is now obscured by the brown smoke, yellowing in some areas.3 In November 2021, Agra reported the worst air quality in the world with an index of 486, way over the threshold of 300, which is considered hazardous and can cause serious health issues. This April, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust reported deep concern over the increasingly vulnerable state of Antarctica after global warming caused the loss of over 2000 billion tonnes of ice and added around 8mm to mean sea level rise.4 Among the other 92 Historic Sites and Monuments across Antarctica, the six historical huts which have seen over 200 years of intermittent human habitation are being damaged by high snowfall and erosion from meltwater torrents. In the Maldives, the Koagannu Mosques and Cemetery, which are the oldest and largest burial ground in the Maldives, faces serious threat from sea level rise, as does the rest of the country.5

Climate change can force communities to abandon their environment alongside their traditions, customs, and lifestyle. For example, the land and culture of Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change due to their marginalisation and deep spiritual connection to land and nature.6 Communities living on marginal lands, namely low-lying or coastal lands, and whose livelihoods depend on natural resources suffer the greatest consequences. When Indigenous Peoples are forced out of their environment, they suffer a great loss of intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is defined in the ICH Convention as the cultural ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts, and cultural spaces associated therewith-that communities, groups, and in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.’7 This may include language, oral tradition, art, social practice, knowledge, and practice. Further, while Indigenous People are highly knowledgeable about the land, they are rarely invited to be involved in climate action discourse at the federal and international levels. 

Why does it matter?

Cultural heritage sites provide communities with a sense of place and belonging. It reminds us of all the ways that the past informs and shapes the present. Andrew Potts of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust explains, ‘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.’8 Cultural heritage highlights alternative history and narratives,  contributes to economic growth through tourism, and preserves sacred traditions. 

Barriers to Dealing with the Risks

It is not by chance that certain regions and communities throughout the world are more vulnerable to the dangerous consequences of climate change and less equipped to protect their land and heritage. Within the discussion on climate change must be a discussion of the ways in which legacies of colonialism, imperialism, militarism, and the exploitative nature of capitalism have rendered certain states more susceptible and incapable of dealing with its effects.9 Post-colonial states suffer from fewer resources, economic insecurity, and escalating conflict as a direct result of external intervention and exploitation of their land and people. Often, the structures put in place by colonisers are designed for extraction and in no way responsive to the economic and social needs of the original inhabitants.10

Rob Nixon’s concept of slow violence illustrates the slow but lethal ways in which climate change occurs and how it exposes the vulnerability of post-colonial states. He explains, ‘Slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.’11 Further, in the face of climate disaster, the defining factors of the ‘nation’ and ‘community’ become up for debate. It becomes very clear in government rhetoric, which is seen as internal and external to the nation. Nixon describes this process as the ‘unimagining’ of communities who become ‘indispensable’ to maintaining a highly selective discourse of national development.’ Even with the good intention to enact more climate-conscious policy or action, who reaps the benefit? Who suffers the cost? Whose monuments and heritage are deemed insignificant?

Barriers to climate change resilience and preservation of cultural heritage manifest in the form of institutional weakness decreased access to necessary information for confronting issues, socio-cultural bias in what cultural heritage is deemed worthy of preservation, as well as financial barriers to implementing solutions.12 Consequently, not only are certain areas wrought by war, violence, and exploitation more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on their land, but they also lack the ability to access the physical resources and skills needed to do anything about it. And if their belief systems or other forms of intangible heritage are not deemed valuable to Western researchers or funders, there is little chance for preservation.


How can we combat this loss of the tangible and intangible markers of history and heritage, especially in marginalised regions of the world? There is no simple, quick solution; it would take a mass social movement to confront and dramatically transform the basis of our energy system and who controls it. This movement starts with recognizing the ways in which climate intersects with matters of power and politics. We must draw attention to who owns and profits from the material production and unnecessary abuse of energy. We must empower local communities and leaders of Indigenous, marginalised groups to lead research and practice for protecting the environment and cultural heritage. Beyond adopting appropriate management protections for historic monuments and archaeological sites, it is necessary to highlight how the tangible and intangible loss of cultural heritage is dictated by legacies of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and other extractive practices. 

About the author

Lily is a second-year master’s student at the University of Oxford in the MPhil Politics (Comparative Government) program. While her thesis research centres on far-right social movements and online extremism, Lily takes interest more broadly in the role that power discrepancies and elite narratives play in dictating the current state of contemporary issues. The varied severity of climate change in particular regions and its impact on cultural monuments and histories illustrates this phenomenon. Lily was a full-time intern with the Contested Histories team in The Hague in September 2023.

End Notes:

  1. Elena Sesana et al., “Climate change impacts on cultural heritage: A literature review,” Wiley, March 3, 2021.
  2. Sandra Fatoric & Robbert Biesbroek, “Adapting cultural heritage to climate change impacts in the Netherlands: barriers, interdependencies, and strategies for overcoming them,” Climatic Change, August 21 2020.
  3. McKenzie Davis, “Monuments as a Lens to Understand Climate Change: A Survey of Altered Indian Architecture,” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection.
  4. UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, “Why Does Heritage Matter During a Climate Crisis?,” April 18, 2023.
  5. World Monuments Watch, “Koagannu Mosques and Cemetery,”  World Monuments Fund, 2022.
  6. Noelle Higgins, “Changing Climate; Changing Life-Climate Change and Indigenous Intangible Cultural Heritage,” Laws, March 8 2022.
  7. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is a UNESCO treaty adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2003 which defines intangible cultural heritage and is aimed to develop measures to ensure the safety and preservation of it.
  8. UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, “Why Does Heritage Matter During a Climate Crisis?,” April 18, 2023.
  9. Christian Parenti, “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” New York, Nation Books, 2011.
  10. Peter B. Evans, “Predatory, Developmental, and Other Apparatuses: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World State,” Sociological Forum (1989), Vol. 4. No. 4.
  11. Rob Nixon, “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts) 2011, 1.
  12. Sandra Fatoric & Robbert Biesbroek, “Adapting cultural heritage to climate change impacts in the Netherlands: barriers, interdependencies, and strategies for overcoming them,” Climatic Change, August 21 2020.