Why there won’t be climate action without culture and youth.

“What of the past will the present save for the future?”.  That’s how Andrew Potts, Coordinator of Climate Heritage Network, opened the session Culture Driving Climate Resilient Futures: An Intergenerational Dialogue, on COP26 Youth Day at the Multilevel Action Pavilion. Here panellists of all ages convened to discuss how concepts of cultural heritage had propelled climate work forward and to share their four culture-based climate interventions.

“What of the past will the present save for the future?” – Andrew Potts

Retelling the legend of Shahmaran – the story of a shepherd and a serpentine monster, Tunc Soyer, Mayor of Izmir Metropolitan Municipality, Turkey, and Climate Action Co-Chair of the Global Executive Committee at ICLEI, reiterated how century-old oral histories on introspectivity and collective responsibility were applicable today in the climate crisis. “The greed of men is more dangerous than the snake’s venom, as it also poisons itself. The only antidote is conscience: the ability to see one’s own limits through another’s eyes. […] It’s a stance but also an action. An action to not hurt others.”

Referring to the climate negotiations taking place meters away, he added, “These negotiations have only one purpose: to find the right sentences to shape the world. Will we listen to the voice of our conscience? Or will we be overwhelmed by the insatiable appetite of a few?”


Bringing harmony to the table 

Under Mayor Soyer’s leadership, Izmir is not just heeding traditional parables, it’s also leading on holistic climate action. The first culture-based climate intervention of the session was the city’s conceptualization of ‘circular culture’, underpinned by four harmonic pillars: (1) harmony with nature, (2) harmony with the past, (3) harmony with each other and harmony with change.

There is no science without culture…, no economy without culture…, no politics without culture. There is no urbanism without culture. We cannot build a future without defining a different culture.” – Tunc Soyer

Its first pillar seeks to repair humanity’s broken bond with nature. “We broke that cultural basis and failed to make a new one”, explains Soyer. The second pillar recognizes that we cannot design the culture of the future without understanding our past, while the third advocates for democracy and respect for one another, as well as respect for the rights of nature. The final pillar – harmony with change – echoes the philosophy of the ancient thinker Heraclitus, viewing change as integral to culture. One way Izmir is actioning this conceptual frame of circular culture is through its involvement in the CittaSlow project, which aims to enlarge the slow food movement and foster respect for citizen’s health, seasonal food and sustainable living.

“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus.


Understanding climate resiliency through culture 

The session’s second culture-based climate intervention was the not-yet-released report: The Role of Culture in Climate Resilient Development, by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Working Group 5 of the Climate Heritage Network, CHN. Jordi Pascual, Coordinator of the UCLG Committee on Culture, shared an exclusive preview of the report, which will be officially launched later in COP26.

The publication provides both a case and evidence for cultural policies, programs and practices as enablers of climate resilience, while offering stakeholders guidance on using cultural tools to deliver a 1.5°C world. Comprising of 33 city case studies from Quito to Benin, the report draws on cities’ experience of using culturally based strategies in pursuing climate actions to formulation six guiding principles:

(1) Imagine new futures that depart from the make-take-waste structure, (2) Understand climate vulnerability, using local assessments to prepare communities for climate uncertainties (3) Engage with carbon, by designing measurable mitigation indicators and metrics (4) Engage with diverse actors to support interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary work and cultural activism within climate planning (5) Seek out synergies and prepare for trade-offs, by acknowledging real and perceived trade-offs that exist between cultural value and climate action (6) Give attention to equity and climate justice to support the inclusive structures and participation.

The report seeks to address the omission of the culture in the IPCC 2018 Special Report and reaffirm its centrality. “It identifies institutional, economic, and ecological conditions as key factors, but omits the two SDGs that explicitly mention culture. Our report emphasises culture as key for climate action.”


Intergenerational equity: The nexus of climate justice and youth

As leaders around the world awake to the fact that climate action cannot be just without involving culture and youth, the buzzword is intergenerational equity: the responsibility to ensure coming generations enjoy the same natural, cultural, economic and social resources as previous ones. By drawing on the fundamental ethics of cultural heritage: of preserving monuments and places of intrinsic value for the future generations to experience, the climate heritage movement translates that sense of stewardship towards nature. And young people are at the forefront.

The third intervention saw young participants of the Climate Heritage Intergenerational Dialogues, held during the Pre-COP this year, showcase their 10 recommendations for a culturally and ecologically equitable future.

“Whether we call it climate action or just transitions, we’re all looking in the same direction. We all want to achieve the same goal.”  – Rim Kelouaze, Africa World Heritage Fund youth programme

Among the recommendations, were calls to disseminate knowledge on how heritage sites had historically coped with drastic climate change and to replicate this within, as well as outside of, the cultural heritage sector. The need for stronger finance mechanisms to mobilize funds for training in traditional skill areas was likewise raised, while storytelling was recognized as a powerful tool to build generational bridges and transmit traditional knowledge at risk of being lost.

Considering the devastating havoc COVID-19 had wreaked on tourism, sustainable travel was also recommended,  in tandem with the concept of holistic heritage destinations, which would connect heritage sites to their wider surroundings and mobility infrastructure. Young panellists reiterated the centrality of community involvement and youth inclusion, particularly in climate-heritage research and in nature-based solutions, while acknowledging the harsh realities, “most difficult of all, we have to accept that not all heritage sites can be saved. We need to learn how to mitigate that loss and ensure proper documentation.”, added Pravali Vangeti, Europa Nostra/ESACH.

“We’re able to encourage environmental stewardship and to immerse students in nature, to experience the mangroves and reefs”- Isabela Watler.

While loss was accepted as a part of culture’s fluid nature, that sense of youth stewardship was being upheld by local initiatives, assured Isabela Watler, from The National Trust for the Cayman Islands. “I’m part of the group ‘Protect our Future’ ‘,’ explained Watler, “we’ve created an educational program to reduce plastic use and are implementing interactive workshops with students, as well as beach cleanups.” The group also hopes to strengthen intergenerational connections, by connecting with older community members through storytelling on maritime culture.

The fourth and final announcement, the launch of the Climate Heritage Network’s Youth Forum, closed the session on a high, as Yoloxochitl Lucio Orizaga representing the ICOMOS Emerging Professional Working Group, shared the Forum’s upcoming plans: “We’re planning peer learning activities in the community, we’re creating dedicated trainings on advocacy and fundraising to help youth make the change and we’re creating space for young people to lead on research and interventions at climate-heritage conferences”.

Young people’s concern for nature and equity is without question. The question that does remain, however, is whether the climate heritage community and financial actors will mobilize and empower young people to take the leaps necessary for intergenerational and culturally just climate action.

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