UN World Heritage Sites Imperiled by Climate Change, New Report Warns

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UN World Heritage Sites Imperiled by Climate Change, New Report Warns

'The need to act is both urgent and clear.'

The Statue of Liberty is "at considerable risk from some of the impacts of climate change" like storm surges and sea level rise, the report found. (Photo: Khürt Williams/flickr/cc)

From the city of Venice to the Statue of Liberty, dozens of natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries are under direct threat from climate change, warns a shocking new report from UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate analyzes peer-reviewed scientific literature, testimony by local experts, and other reports to determine which sites around the world were most vulnerable to rising waters and extreme weather.

While the Statue of Liberty appears to be "solid," it is in fact "at considerable risk from some of the impacts of climate change" like storm surges and sea level rise, the report found.

On the other side of the Atlantic, increasing rainfall and flash floods threaten to damage Stonehenge, the world's most famous Stone Age monument. And Venice is "now under assault from rapidly growing tourist numbers as well as worsening climate-driven water damage to the very buildings and architectural and monumental heritage that draws visitors in the first place," the report continues.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events like El Niño threaten to have "devastating impacts" on species in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador as food supplies are disrupted.

And in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, warmer temperatures and human-caused deforestation are likely to reduce gorilla habitats, while climate change and the expansion of tourism will increase risk of disease passing from humans to gorillas.

The report follows the recent signing of the historic COP21 climate agreement in Paris.

"Globally, we need to understand, monitor, and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites better," said Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO's World Heritage center. "As the report's findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations."

The Guardian also reports that the final version of the study removed every reference to Australia after the country's government intervened, arguing that the information could hurt its tourism industry. Australia is currently experiencing an unprecedented coral bleaching crisis, among other climate emergencies.

Its government also successfully lobbied UNESCO to remove the Great Barrier Reef from the agency's list of "World Heritage Sites in Danger" a year ago—although that did not stop the World Wildlife Foundation from issuing a similar warning.

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The draft chapter on Australia can be read here.

Also at risk are sites such as South Africa's Cape Floral Kingdom; the port city of Cartagena, Colombia; and Shiretoko National Park in Japan, the report continues.

"Climate change is affecting World Heritage sites across the globe," said Adam Markham, lead author of the report and deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS. "Climate change could eventually even cause some World Heritage sites to lose their status."

The report lists a number of recommendations to help safeguard the sites against the devastation of climate change, including continued assessment, monitoring, and early warnings of impact. But the work must not be left entirely to organizations and policymakers, the report states—it must also call tourism to task. The industry should develop strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from world travelers and fully integrate climate change impacts into its national and site-level tourism planning, the recommendations state.

"The need to act is both urgent and clear," the report concludes. "Success will require us to expand our networks and partnerships with local communities and businesses and to encourage the tourism industry to join us in this vital task."

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