Climate Change: Endangering Our Future, Destroying Our Past

by James Goodwin

April 08, 2009

The large earthquake that struck central Italy on Monday is devastating not only for the immense human suffering—people killed and injured, and communities disrupted—but also for the priceless losses of Italian cultural heritage.  The Italian Ministry of culture has reported that the earthquake damaged a number of buildings of immeasurable historical significance, including the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio—the site of a papal coronation in 1294—and  an archway built in the 16th century to honor Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Unfortunately, historical sites throughout the world are suffering from similar irreparable damage.  The difference:  this damage is the result of the effects of global climate change, which, unlike earthquakes and other natural disasters, is traceable to human causes and is therefore preventable.

Historians, archeologists, and anthropologists around the world report that with each passing day the effects of global climate change are systematically destroying invaluable historical sites and artifacts.  For example, rising average surface temperatures have caused the melting of polar ice, permafrost, and glaciers, resulting in the disruption of a number of sites, such as the frozen burial grounds of the Scythian warrior mummies in Mongolia, the cemeteries established by early whaling communities on Canada’s Herschel Island, and various pre-Incan tombs and temples located in Peru’s northern Andean highlands.

Meanwhile, rising sea levels continue to threaten the remains of numerous ancient coastal settlements, including many early Eskimo villages in Alaska, a Neolithic village located in Scotland known as Skara Brae (which is so well-preserved that it has been dubbed the “British Pompeii”), and the ancient Egyptian monuments of Alexandria.

The negative consequences of this destruction cannot be overstated.  These historical sites and artifacts provide the only existing links to the civilizations that preceded our own.  Once these sites and artifacts are destroyed, we will have lost forever our only means for understanding these civilizations and the peoples that comprised them.  The world is our greatest history book, and climate change is haphazardly tearing out pages in bunches.  Without these pages, we lose crucial insights of where we came from and, by extension, who we are.

The negative consequences of climate change on these historical sites and artifacts cast in the starkest terms how the fates of the environment and cultural heritage are inextricably intertwined.  Significantly, this link between environmental quality and cultural heritage has not gone unnoticed in U.S. environmental law.  Indeed, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—which many legal scholars recognize as the foundation for contemporary environmental law—declares that one of its goals is to “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage . . . .”  (Section 101(B))

Ironically, even though NEPA makes explicit the need to protect the environment as an important component of preserving U.S. cultural heritage, NEPA, as currently interpreted, does not apply to the single greatest environmental threat to this cultural heritage:  global climate change.  In a report released last November, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen, CPR Member Scholars recommended that President Barack Obama issue an Executive Order directing federal agencies to consider the climate change-related implications of their actions as part of their obligations under NEPA.  The continuing threats of climate change to historical sites and artifacts in the United States—as well as throughout the world—serve only to underscore how critical the implementation of this recommendation can be.  This action by itself would not be sufficient to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.  But it is emblematic of the swift and decisive action that must be taken if we are to have any chance of preserving for subsequent generations a future of hope as well as an opportunity to connect with their past.

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Also from James Goodwin

James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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