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New literature review documents non-economic loss and damage due to climate change

Members of the Bedamuni People of Western Province, Papua New Guinea, standing on a bridge. Photo.
The photo depicts Indigenous members of the Bedamuni People of Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The researchers argue that there is a need to broaden both the focus and the geographical scope of research on loss. Photo: Guy Jackson.

– We have a moral responsibility to document loss of cultural heritage, indigenous and local knowledge, declining ecosystems and eroding sense of place, says LUCSUS post-doctoral fellow Guy Jackson. He has co-authored a literature review on non-economic loss and damage which highlights the need for more research on intangible cultural heritage, and how it connects to our physical surroundings, as well as research on how Indigenous groups can cope, respond to and manage loss.

Around the world, communities are experiencing non-economic losses due to climate change. These losses are usually defined as loss of life, human health, mobility, territory, biodiversity, ecosystem services, Indigenous and cultural knowledge, cultural heritage, sense of place and social cohesion. Losses occur because of sea level rise, glacier melts, rising temperatures, floods, droughts and intersect with migration patterns, industrialisation, and historical processes (e.g. colonisation) that have resulted in heightened vulnerability to climate change . 

Non-economic losses important to document

– It is important to highlight and focus on non-economic losses for many reasons. One is that intangible values, such as cultural heritage and local knowledge, are intrinsic to what makes us human – and as such they need to be recorded before the memory of what is lost fades away. Another is to give voice to vulnerable groups around the world, who might not themselves be able to document these losses. By publishing papers and evidence, we can support them to make a case for compensation or recognition of how these losses affect people across the world, says Guy Jackson, post-doctoral fellow at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

Along with his co-authors he has completed an extensive literature review of 100 papers dealing with non-economic loss and damage. The goal? To take stock of what is known and published in regards to climate change driven losses to indigenous and local knowledge and cultural heritage, and how they manifest, and ultimately can be overcome. 

– We chose to focus on these two areas of non-economic loss, since for many Indigenous people, their knowledge systems are crucial to preserve traditions of cultural heritage such as oral traditions and practices. Moreover, researchers have observed that loss of local knowledge and cultural heritage can decrease a groups’ ability to deal with climate change, and it can also lead to weakened social cohesion, as people lose touch with traditional ways of life, says Guy Jackson.

Different themes emerge: physical cultural heritage and loss of cultural identity 

The review found that the majority of the papers, 39 out of a 100, focused on physical or tangible cultural heritage loss – for example loss of archeological sites and historical buildings in USA or Europe, something the authors attribute to a Eurocentric view of cultural heritage as something physical with material and aesthetic value. Moreover, most studies focused on loss from slow-onset events such as sea level rise and glacier melts as opposed to loss from extreme weather events like cyclones, hurricanes, drought or floods – and loss was often conceptualised as a future problem. 

The review also traces other thematic focuses. One of them is loss of Indigenous socioecological systems, which encompass both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Most of the studies dealing with this topic focused on the Arctic and North America – with examples of how communities experienced loss connected to costal, deltaic and island socioecological systems. 

Another emerging focus was loss of intangible cultural heritage, such as changing songs and work patterns due to forced migration, declining species and natural surroundings, whereby pastoralists, elders and farmers can no longer engage in traditions connected to the land. This results, over time, in a loss of sense of self and of cultural identity. As one study highlights, for the Inuit people in Canada, their knowledge and identity come from knowing the land “Inuit people are people of the sea ice. If there is no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”

Future steps: more research on loss in Global South needed, as well as management strategies

– The review throws up many important questions and areas for future research. For me, the fact that local climactic changes can so severely impact a community’s sense of cultural identity, and their ability to continue indigenous traditions is particularly overwhelming, especially since organisations such as IPBES have recognised that local knowledge is key in preserving rain forests and other precious ecosystems. But how can they do that if their natural surroundings change at such a pace that their very culture is at risk of being lost?, says Guy Jackson.

Other important take home messages, according to the researchers, include the need to broaden both the focus and the geographical scope of research on loss. Most of the studies focused on cultural heritage as something tangible, and looked at communities in North America, as opposed to South America or Oceana. This is problematic since communities in Small Island States risk absolute loss of their habitat and socioecological systems due to sea level rise. Moreover, a too narrow view of cultural heritage risks overlooking how intangible traditions are an integral part of a community’s way of life, and as important to safeguard as physical sites. Also crucial, say the authors, is to push for more studies on ways to manage and adapt to loss – undertaken in an inter-and transdisciplinary fashion, in collaboration with Indigenous groups.

– We will not be able to completely halt continued loss of Indigenous knowledge or cultural heritage, but we can focus efforts on ways to respond and cope with loss. Part of this effort is about documenting losses that have occurred, and to highlight how intangible cultural values are inextricably tied to physical places; another is to find ways to assist communities by focusing on how they can be part of managing and overcoming loss due to climate change, Guy Jackson concludes. 

The study, 'Climate-drive losses to Indigenous and local knowledge', was published in Anthropocene Review. It is authored by Jasmine Pearson, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Guy Jackson, LUCSUS, and Karen McNamara, University of Queensland.

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Ten examples of cultural heritage and local knowledge threatened by climate change

  1. The loss of burial sites due to sea-level rise throughout the Pacific but an empirical example from Kosrae, Micronesia.
  2. The loss of Warao peoples’ territory and culturally valuable resources in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela due to sea level rise.
  3. The increasing loss of Diné Nation forests in the U.S. due to reduced rainfall, increasing temperatures and larger scale and increased frequency of fires.
  4. The loss of glaciers and bofedales (cultutally-shaped productive wetlands) which Aymaran communities living near Sajama National Park in the Bolivian Andes depend upon.
  5. Sea-level rise, more frequent storms and increased coastal erosion are having a significant impact on the traditional practice of making the sweetgrass basket, an ‘iconic craft tradition’ for the Gullah Geechee communities in the southeastern U.S.
  6. Changing seasonality and weather affecting Indigenous knowledge and identity in Erub Island communities in the Torres Strait, Australia.
  7. Loss of sea ice in the Arctic affecting sense of identity, Indigenous knowledge and hunting practices amongst Inuit communities with an empirical example from Iqaluit, Nunavut.
  8. For Kazakh mobile pastoral herders in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, cultural practices and products such as songs and instrumental tunes, musical instruments, tools and textiles, work patterns and ceremonial gatherings have all been disrupted as a result of climate change.
  9. Climate-induced relocation in the Pacific Islands are leading to loss of identity and sense of place with specific examples from villages in Vunidogoloa, Fiji.
  10. Physical cultural heritage is being impacted by sea level rise, increasing humidity, shifting rainfall patterns in Europe with examples from Dublin Castle and the Hellinstic roads and ruins in Cyprus.
Guy Jackson. Photo.


Guy Jackson is a post-doctoral fellow currently working on the project Recasting the Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change Extremes, DICE, at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

He received his PhD in Human Geography from The University of Queensland. He is interested in critically examining climate change loss and damage, and disaster risk reduction, and the (re)production of vulnerability in socio-ecological systems.

Read more about Guy Jackson