If we need evidence of the growing impact humans are having on the environment, look no further than the 241 UNESCO Natural (or mixed Cultural and Natural) World Heritage Sites, those sites of outstanding universal value containing ‘areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance’, ‘outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history’, ‘outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes’, or containing ‘the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity’. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) signalled that thirty-five of these sites were threatened by climate change. Just three years later, this number has rapidly escalated, with at least sixty-two now indicated to be at risk.
Predictably, coral reefs feature especially severely, with Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Seychelles' Aldabra Atoll, and the Belize Barrier Reef all classified as having a ‘very high’ threat rating. Oceania, Central America, and the Caribbean are the regions of the world with the most climate change-threatened World Heritage Sites, but the list also includes European sites such as the Pyrenees and the Wadden Sea, as well as everything from the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and the Everglades National Park, to Kilimanjaro National Park and the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
‘Today we see that climate change is already causing significant impacts on different types of ecosystems and natural features contained in these sites, from coral reefs and coastal areas to glaciers and fire-prone grasslands,’ reflects Peter Shadie, Senior Adviser at the IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. ‘It results in a range of impacts and consequences, including coral bleaching, sea-level rise, increasing frequency and severity of fires. There appear to be a multitude of factors causing the rapid increase in sites affected, including new studies documenting the tangible impacts attributable to climate change and the prevalence of invasive species impacts, as the number one threat to sites and often driven by changes in climate.’
Overall, the IUCN conclude that invasive species, mass tourism, and climate change are currently the biggest threats to all 241 natural sites. However, while the former are not threatening significantly more sites than they were three years ago, the immense scale of the latter means it is rapidly closing in on becoming the most substantial threat. ‘Because of its global nature,’ adds Shadie, ‘climate change affects sites in countries all over the world. While no country can address climate change on its own, investment in adaptation measures and effective management is important. These measures can help reduce negative impacts and help sites adapt better.’