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UNESCO Director General’s Statement on Climate Change and World Heritage

Message given by the Director General delivered at the Press Conference of the 12th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nairobi, Kenya (6-17 November 2006)

One of the major challenges of our society is coping with climate change; to this end the need to improve the level of public debate on climate change is vital. Thus, public discussions should be well-informed and realistic. The constituencies made up of research institutes, higher education institutions, international organizations, governments and civil society have responsibilities to ensure that democratic debate is based on cogent argumentation and reliable evidence as much as possible.

The 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention is a central tool in helping identify and protect, for the benefit of current and future generations, the tremendous natural and cultural heritage of the world. The Convention is designed to encourage international cooperation for the conservation of protected areas and to monitor their state of conservation.

Climate changes are impacting on all aspects of the human and natural systems, including both cultural and natural World Heritage properties. Protecting and ensuring the sustainable management of these sites has therefore become an intergovernmental priority of the highest order.

Many marine World Heritage sites are tropical coral reefs whose exposure to bleaching events - due to increased ocean temperature and acidification is increasing - possibly leading to mass extinction of coral reefs. The increase of atmospheric temperature is also leading to the melting of glaciers worldwide. Terrestrial biodiversity may also be affected by species shifting ranges, changes in the timing of biological cycles, migration of pests and invasive species, among other phenomena.

World Heritage cultural sites are also exposed to this threat. Ancient buildings were designed for specific local climates. Increasing sea level threatens numerous coastal sites. The migration of pests can also have an adverse impact on the conservation of built heritage. But aside from these principal physical threats, climate change will also have tremendous impact on social and cultural aspects, with communities changing the way they live, work, worship and socialize in buildings, sites and landscapes, possibly leading to migration and the abandonment of their built heritage altogether.

The fact that climate change poses a threat to the outstanding universal values of World Heritage sites has several implications for the implementation and monitoring of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Lessons learnt at several sites worldwide show the relevance of designing and implementing appropriate adaptations measures. Research at all levels would also have to be promoted in collaboration with the various bodies involved in Climate Change work, especially for cultural heritage where the level of involvement of the scientific community should be reinforced. The global network of the World Heritage sites is ideally suited to build public and political support through improved information dissemination and effective communication on the subject, given the high profile nature of these sites.

Similarly, the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which underlining the deep-seated interdependence between the preservation of the world's tangible and intangible heritage, pays close attention to knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and the Local and Indigenous Knowledge System (LINKS) Project likewise focus on the interrelationship between cultural and biological diversity, and the need for a fully integrated approach to issues of environmental preservation and sustainable development.

UNESCO is committed to working closely with various actors in civil society, including the scientific community, to address the multiple challenges posed by climate change, in particular to the precious and fragile cultural and natural heritage of the world.