Climate Change and Cultural Heritage: the time for talking is over

By Lorraine Finch ACR, FRSA, CF

The climate and environmental crises pose significant threats to cultural heritage. These are serious times. The Climate Heritage Network writes ‘Most emissions scenarios now show that global warming is expected to hit 1.5°C “in the early 2030s” if not sooner. This raises the prospect of “overshoot” in the next 10 years, plunging the earth into a period when risks to human systems including livelihoods and cultural and spiritual values is expected to further increase.’

The nature and climate crises are now the most significant threats to our work […] ‘But it is not just the land that climate change impacts. From historic houses ever more at risk of damage from torrential rainfall and heat spikes, to protecting collections from increasingly damp and humid conditions, we have to consider the impact of climate change on everything we look after. 

Harry Bowell, Director of Land and Nature at the National Trust (UK)

Climate change isn’t something that’s coming, it’s here, now. The impact of climate change and environmental degradation on heritage can be seen worldwide. Extreme weather events that we were told were ‘once in a generation’ are happening with increasing frequency. In July 2022, East Kentucky (USA) was hit by storms which caused widespread flooding unprecedented in living memory and leaving the Appalshop and the Hindman Settlement School Archives covered in 6.5 feet of water.

Figure 1: Flooding in Bradford, UK caused by heavy rainfall. ©Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

Figure 2: Forest Fire, USA. ©Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

And, increasingly in the UK, conservators are faced with items damaged by hot, dry summers and warmer, wetter winters causing severe mould outbreaks.

Figure 3: Mould growth on a document. ©Lorraine Finch

The time for talking is over. We understand the science of climate change, we have sufficient trusted data to base our decisions on, and we know what we need to do. The solutions all exist. It is now time for action. 

Yet, at times, it appears that the cultural heritage community is not taking the risks posed by climate change and environmental degradation seriously. It is not helpful to hear those in senior positions in the sector make comments such as “Climate change is important but not a priority”. My research to discover the blocks to taking action gave rise to feedback such as “It’s low on the priority list” and “[there is] a lack of enthusiasm”.

Taking action is seen as “someone else’s job”, and it’s felt that implementing mitigation to reduce the impact of the cultural heritage sector on the climate and the environment is “just something else that needs to be done”. My research is supported by the findings of a survey carried out by the SME Climate Hub which revealed that 42% of businesses “Have other priorities”. Other blocks identified are a lack of time, a lack of money, the inability to effect change and a lack of knowledge. 

How can we address these blocks? How do we change hearts and minds in the cultural heritage community to make climate change a priority at every level in every organisation? What do cultural heritage professionals need in order to be able to take action to mitigate the impact of the sector on the climate and the environment? 

When asked in my research, cultural heritage professionals identified that in order to address these blocks and to take action they needed straightforward, simple, practical advice presented in an uncomplicated and accessible manner. The advice must be relevant and sufficiently specialist. ‘Low Cost/No Cost Tips for Sustainability in Cultural Heritage’, published in May 2022, is just this. It inspires individuals and gives them the power to address the climate and environmental crises at little or no cost with actions that will have an immediate effect.

Low cost/no cost actions can be taken by anyone at any time. They don’t require the approval of senior management. It may be argued that low cost/no cost actions are small and negligible in the difference they will make. This is not the case, they have a significant impact.  

Figure 4: Instagram post. 7th September 2022. ©Lorraine Finch

Low cost/no cost tips for sustainability in cultural heritage includes tips for tackling the apathy in the sector, and for winning the hearts and minds to make the climate and the environment THE priority in all that we do in cultural heritage. The key is in inspiring others and changing behaviour. Speak about your successes, share your actions with others, speak up, talk about what we can do, ask why action hasn’t been taken and hold others accountable. These are all ways that you can inspire others, influence stakeholders and change behaviour. 

You can also inspire others and create change by providing support. When spirits flag, when it seems an impossible task, be there. It doesn’t have to be anything grand. A few words recognising the efforts of others and the difference they are making is enough. This was certainly the case when I received a letter from Sir David Attenborough thanking me for all that I’m doing to help in the fight against climate change.

Figure 5. Letter from Sir David Attenborough to the author. ©Lorraine Finch

I am calling you to action. Protect our cultural heritage, our planet and our future by making a pledge to take one action to reduce your impact on the climate and the environment today. Do it, then take another one and then another one…

 The truth of our planet’s current predicament is beyond alarming

Sir David Attenborough. 2020

Stop talking and start doing. 

About the author: Lorraine has been described as a ‘hippy tree hugger’. She’s this plus an activist, social entrepreneur and accredited conservator. Lorraine is founder and director of LFCP, which is accelerating the cultural heritage sector’s climate and environmental actions through research, knowledge sharing and resource creation.

Lorraine is a sustainability advisor in cultural heritage. She provides remote and onsite consultation, training opportunities and mentoring to organisations and individuals to help them work sustainably and to meet their sustainability goals. Find out more at LFCP

Lorraine is a Director and Trustee of the Institute of Conservation (Icon). She is co-founder and Chair of the Icon Sustainability Network. Lorraine is a Director of Climate Museum UK. 

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Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

Figure 6: Lorraine Finch and her text, Low Cost/No Cost Tips for Sustainability in CulturalHeritage.©Lorraine Finch

Links for Low Cost/No Cost Tips for Sustainability in Cultural Heritage

Low Cost/No Cost Tips for Sustainability in Cultural Heritage’ is available from all online bookstores including: 

World of Books (a BCorp):


Barnes and Noble:

Preservation Equipment: