A paradigm shift bound to happen

(only available in English)

“The natural environment is deteriorating at an alarming rate: sea levels are rising; ocean acidification is accelerating; the last four years have been the warmest on record; one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, and land degradation continues unchecked.” 

– United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (United Nations 2020)

Climate change has become a pressing issue in today’s world. The news features daily topics talking about a wide range of consequences related to this change. Each of these effects is caused by the global warming of the earth that is, according to scientists, increased due to human developments (NASA 2020). The impacts are widespread and also the heritage conservation field is being affected by the effects of climate change (Wilson and e.d. 2019). Moreover, these effects are not only limited to the direct impacts from climate change but are also caused by the actions taken in response to it (United Nations 2015).

Having had the modern movement that focusses on building well and functionally for the industrialised world and, after that, the heritage focussed time where attention was being paid to the existing places, the focus has now shifted towards sustainability. This new moment stripped heritage of its moral authority and heritage conservation thus has to ‘redefine’ itself within this new moment in time to accord with it (Logan 2020). The shift being discussed here is not a new change. One of the most accepted definitions about sustainable development dates from the 1987 Brundtland report stating that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987, 41). In response to the developments, the Paris Agreement was created in 2015 that aims “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change” by limiting global warming and “to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change” (United Nations 2015, 3) and as a response 17 sustainable development goals were drafted giving guidance to this common cause (United Nations 2015; n.d.) putting more pressure on heritage conservation to adjust itself to this shift. 

With this pressing issue and the possible consequences for heritage conservation in mind, this essay will take a closer look to the effects of climate change on the heritage conservation field. By analysing the heritage principles and detailing the impact of climate change and the Paris agreement on it an answer will be sought to the question ‘What implications do climate change and the 2015 Paris Agreement have for cultural heritage principles?’ To do so the principles of authenticity, values and reversibility will be analysed as well as the possible implication on these to see what the overall effect is of climate change on heritage conservation.

Heritage conservation

The main aim of heritage conservation is already reflected in the name of the field itself; to conserve. With the definition and specifics of conserving being altered over time, a paradigm shift is currently also being predicted in light of global warming. Among the people believing that the shift is bound to happen in heritage conservation is for example Lesh (2020) who states that, apart from a shift to a more spiritual focussed heritage conservation less based on science (as also confirmed by Orbasli (2017)), a move to a more sustainable heritage conservation field based on the effects of climate change our generation is facing. According to Meier et al. ( 2007, 13) “the danger posed by disasters merely represents a special case, a heightening of the day-to-day problems of heritage conservation. Nonetheless, the size of natural disasters and their general solutions, too, are carried to an extreme” asking for a shift in the way the heritage conservation is practiced. With this paradigm shift thus confirmed by experts within the heritage conservation field, the question remains what the explicit consequences are of it.


Currently the heritage conservation field is largely based on the principle of authenticity. This notion is seen as the essential factor for the different values and is still largely based on the basis of retention (Fixler 2008) relating it back to its close relationship with its synonyms among which ‘true’, ‘sincere’ or ‘original’ can be found (Assi 2000). While this notion has already been questioned by the Narra Document as well as by several other international charters and documents following the initial catalyst of this debate (Stovel 2008), the notion will have to be further questioned in light of climate changes.

With the predicted increase of rapid and slow onset events (Wilson and e.d. 2019) there is a need for risk assessment, assessing the possibilities of adaptation and retrofitting in order to help cultural heritage withstand these events. However, a paradox is also posed by endangering cultural heritage and its authenticity through such preventions (Wilson and e.d. 2019; Meier et al. 2007). “The crisis these choices induce expose the inadequacy of the notion of a unique and correct interpretation and calls into question whether any re-creation, no matter how skilfully executed, can in fact be considered authentic” (Fixler 2008, 11). We must thus ask what is already emphasised by Assi (2000, 67): “At what point is a cultural property no longer authentic? At what point has it lost its historical continuity and its ability to carry a cultural message? If one considers that conservation aims to safeguard cultural resources so as to retain historic value and extend physical life, can reconstruction, recreation or dismantling and re-assembly of cultural properties constitute a conservation activity?” 

While there is a common belief that heritage conservation needs to response to the new focus on sustainability, the opinions are divided on how to deal with this exactly. Some argue for a more flexible and dynamic approach asking for an adaptable application of authenticity depending on the specific circumstances of each case (e.g. (Fixler 2008; Watt 2000; Assi 2000; Wilson and e.d. 2019)). According to Fixler (2008, 12) this change to a more dynamic approach of authenticity, or as he writes an “understanding of authenticity that approaches Quinan’s own call for “a new paradigm [for preservation that] must be flexible, inclusive, and multivalent”, is not strange in light of the already made change to a more flexible approach in heritage conservation. In general this means moving from a modernist absolute approach to a postmodern maturity pluralistic approach. While Fixler does not specify any particular approach to places that are abandoned or not used any more, he does specify his believes for buildings that are still being used and seen as functional. He identifies that “as the process of rehabilitation alters the perception and meaning of the resource, what may have been considered authentic about a structure prior to its modification will inevitably have to change based upon the synthesis of form, space, material, time, and use that have newly defined the work through an intervention that expresses and sustains the philosophical authenticity of the essential architectural idea” (Fixler 2008). He thus advocates to a flexible approach of authenticity that is based just as much on an idea or intent of a place as on the material or physical to give an answer to how authenticity can evolve to cope with the effects of climate change. 

Assi (2000) also proposes a more dynamic use of the concept in light of climate change. However, the detailing of how to do so is substantially different. According to Assi (2000, 67) authenticity can be found “in the continuation of traditions and traditional types of functions and use.” She thus considers it necessary to make gradual changes to the places of the built environment, both heritage and non-heritage places, to make sure this is ensured. However, this will not, in her view, compromise the authenticity of the place, because this is found in the expression of the cultural and social spirit of the time. However, Assi does pose condition to the degree of change for a place stating that change is only allowed if the “overall character is maintained-its morphology, dimension, materials, gardens, fountains, topography and way of life- not forgetting the spirit of the place” (Assi 2000).


The second principle analysed in regard to the effects of climate change on heritage conservation is the principle of values. The principle of conserving the authenticity of a place, as discussed above, examines a concept that cannot be added to a subject. The subject either is authentic or it is not. The principle of values on the other hand is subjective, determined by people.

Value-based judgement of heritage has been an important principle within the conservation field guiding the ascription of the heritage stamp onto a place. However, according to Orbasli (2017) the value-based judgement is not only a subjective measure and it should be accompanied by scientific activity. The solution to deal with values in light of the effects of climate change is, according to Orbasli (2017) found in moving towards a more ethical standpoint in ascribing values to places. Postmodernism already questioned the elitism and absolutes of modernism and introduced a plurality or multivocality. She believes that this should be even further developed to allow for the assigning of meaning and significance to places, which cannot be done using objective tools. Making use of ethical and moral criteria to judge the significance of a place, using negotiations and possibly even the concept of future stakeholders could prove to be valuable. 

With the effects of climate change and thereby related migrations of people, the question arises how values are assigned with possibly no future stakeholders to place them. Additionally, these “greater human movements and migrations are also shifting societal views of identity in relation to land or place” (Orbasli 2017) altering the values assigned to places. These “Climate-induced migration[s are] […] leading to the displacement of entire communities who are divorced from their tangible heritage and landscapes and at risk to losing their sense of place” (Wilson and e.d. 2019, 11). Not only are these people prone to lose their sense of place also the place itself is put at risk with a lack of people to conserve it and to retain the traditional knowledge. Where “some communities may value maintaining their social and cultural capital higher than the possible loss in livelihoods and related distress” (Wilson and e.d. 2019) this is often not the case resulting in abandoned heritage places.

According to Wilson and e.d. (2019) an answer to this problem can be found in putting more effort in understanding cultures since this can be used as the initiator of change and adaptation to a situation. By developing, as also recognised by the Paris Agreement itself (United Nations 2015), “recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” (Wilson and e.d. 2019, 61) and by adapting these to specific cultural contexts the negative impacts of migrations can be combatted and a continuation of the significance of a place for a community can be ensured. 


The final principle discussed in this essay is the concept of reversibility in relation to maintenance, repair and stabilization, modernization, reconstruction and relocation. With a long-standing debate between the scrape and anti-scrape movement, or the Ruskinian and Viollet-Le-Duc movements, the concept of reversibility is not always adopted in heritage conservation. Nonetheless, currently, several international charters and documents, among which the Burra Charter, stress the importance of reversibility of changes made to a place in order to conserve its significance and authenticity. The changes in (micro)climates that have put new question marks at the use and way of adopting this concept. Places once created now face different demands and have started to deteriorate at a faster pace or are threatened by destruction all together. Changes to a place in order to reverse or prevent this process from happening not only question the concept of authenticity but also the concept of reversibility. Should we relocate a place in order to preserve its authenticity and values? Or should we in allow a place to become affected by natural disasters? Is it allowed to alter the context of a place in order to protect it from the effects of climate change given that these changes might not be reversible? Is climate change a human-created phenomenon and if so, should the effects and changes of it on heritage places thus also be regarded as something that should be reversible?

According to Assi (2000, 65) “Heritage cannot be ‘frozen’ […]. Most importantly, heritage sites must be conceived within a framework of long-term development.” This would indicate that reversibility can sometimes be disregarded in the name of adaption to future needs. Moreover, it would also indicate that choices should be made for future generations. This argument goes directly against the Brundtland definition that we should not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland 1987). While Caroline Stanford does not necessarily disagree with this statement, she does advocate a return to a Ruskinian approach with more verdant ruins, letting the temporal and environmental context guide the aging of the places (Watt 2000) pleading for the unfrozen state of heritage. By doing so she, conjointly, regards the effects of climate change as part of the environmental context allowing it to irreversibly alter heritage places. Wilson and e.d. (2019) on the other hand advocate for regular maintenance in order to combat the effects of climate change. They believe that by doing so the place ban be optimised without having a negative impact on the values, authenticity and integrity thus preventing irreversible changes to a place. However, it is also acknowledged that it is important to recognise that not everything can be saved. And that, by clearly understanding the values and meaning of a place, a well-considered adaptation to a place can be made when necessary, naming disaster risk reduction as an important asset to prevent unnecessary changes. This is also being acknowledged by Meier et al. (2007, 17) who state that “Traces of disasters and also the way in which the destruction they cause has been dealt with regularly become a part of the monument landscape.”

The question was posed above if a relocation of a subject in order to conserve it regarding the concept of reversibility is allowed. According to Assi (2000, 63) “A community is […] made up of individuals whose understanding and appreciation of qualities […] depend on the professional or cultural context in which they see heritage.” This would argue against the relocation of heritage places in order to conserve their significance and meaning to individuals. However, one could also assume that when the professional and cultural context can be conserved even after relocation an irreversible move would thus be deemed permitted. 

Effects of climate change on heritage conservation

“At a time when we [thus] expect to have tested methodologies and established benchmarks we are finding ourselves confronted with conflicting priorities, global uncertainly and multiple approaches to ‘conservation’.” (Orbasli 2017)

In light of the effects of climate change, there is currently no clear consensus in literature on the application and (re)definition of the concept of authenticity, apart from a more flexible and dynamic approach to the application of the notion. However, However, the need for a (re)definition of the concept is acknowledge, recognising the upcoming paradigm shift in order to ensure the conservation of places that are currently under threat by climate change. On the basis of value-judgement a call was made to allow for more plurality and multivocality while not disregarding professional acknowledged guidelines and methods to prevent a shaping of heritage. And finally, on the basis of reversibility, like on the basis of authenticity, no clear consensus could be found within literature. While a general agreement on the fact that heritage cannot be frozen in time can be found, opinions still differ on the details of how this should be accompanied for in heritage conservation.

A possible answer to how the paradigm can shift

History has taught us that changes in principles evolve over time. Today we are at the brink of a new change. “While uncertainty is inherent in climate change […] it cannot be used as an excuse for inaction” (Wilson and e.d. 2019, 43). “Unlike the historians, who

can limit themselves to a dispassionate analysis of events, preservationists have the duty to act and help give shape to things” (Meier et al. 2007, 39). We should not hold on tight to previous standards seeing those as absolutes of truth but be in line with conservation principles of plurality and accept that also a plurality of what we deem conservation and how we deal with its principles will not be absolute. “Conservation in whatever age is a way of interpreting history through material remains, informed by the meanings and values of the present” (Orbasli 2017, 167). A dynamic and flexible approach is needed to deal with the effects of climate change; with a possible redefinition of what we see as authentic, what we feel is significant and valuable and a determination of what changes should be reversible. We should move away from heritage conservation solely or primarily being based on scientific reasoning, and also allow for a conservation based on meanings and intent. Educating people on the scale of changes that are required to tackle the transformation that is needed to address the issue. Starting to globally see heritage as valuable and in need of protection being impacted by climate change, but also acting as a source for resilience of communities (Wilson and e.d. 2019; Meier et al. 2007). Working together with different sectors to ensure the continuation of heritage conservation in light of the changes coming at it. (Meier et al. 2007)

“You cannot ever really turn back the clock, or have things as they were. The appropriate resolution of the hard realities of necessary change are what preservation is all about. And yet every ‘‘appropriate’’ solution kills the old buildings a little bit at the same time that it keeps them alive—a practical and philosophical paradox”  (Huxtable 1976). “Historic buildings have often been compared to books or manuscripts, as they maintain the memory of the story told by different generations” (Assi 2000). Why not let heritage places also tell the story of our time including the battle against climate change?!


Assi, Eman. 2000. “Searching for the Concept of Authenticity: Implementation Guidelines.” Journal of Architectural Conservation 6 (3): 60–69. https://doi.org/10.1080/13556207.2000.10785280.

Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter. 2013. “The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance.” Burwood.

Brundtland, Gro Harlem. 1987. “Our Common Future, Chairman’s Foreword.” In Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, 5–9.

English Heritage. 2008. “Conservation Principles – Policies and Guidance for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment.”

Fixler, David. 2008. “Is It Real and Does It Matter? – Rethinking Authenticity and Preservation.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67 (1): 11–13.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. 1976. “Why You Always Win and Lose in Urban Renewal.” New York Times, September 16, 1976.

Lesh, James. 2020. “Lecture: Social Value as Heritage Value.” Sydney. 2020.

Logan, Cameron. 2020. “Lecture: Heritage Conservation and Environmental Sustainability.” Sydney. 2020.

Meier, Hans-Rudolf, Michael Petzet, Thomas Will, and eds. 2007. “Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters: Risk Preparedness and Limits of Prevention, Heritage at Risk, Special Edition.”

NASA. 2020. “The Causes of Climate Change.” 2020. https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.

Orbasli, Aylin. 2017. “Conservation Theory in the Twenty-First Century: Slow Evolution or a Paradigm Shift?” Journal of Architectural Conservation 23 (3): 157–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/13556207.2017.1368187.

Stovel, Herb. 2008. “Origins and Influence of the Nara Document on Authenticity.” APT Bulletin 39 (2/3): 9–17.

United Nations. n.d. “About the Sustainable Development Goals.” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/.

———. 2015. “Paris Agreement.” Paris. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.

———. 2020. “About the 2019 SDG Report.” 2020. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/progress-report/.

Watt, David. 2000. “Authenticity and Significance.” Journal of Architectural Conservation 5 (6): 5–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/13556207.2000.10785275.

Wilson, Helen, and e.d. 2019. “The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action, Heritage and Climate Change Outline.” ICOMOS 2019. https://indd.adobe.com/view/a9a551e3-3b23-4127-99fd-a7a80d91a29e.