For nearly 200 years, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and nearby Fog Bell House have stood guard over Maine’s rocky coast — a landmark so iconic that it appears on the state’s quarter. But in the aftermath of last month’s severe storms, much of the bell house lay in ruins, its historic bell sitting in piles of bricks after two of the structure’s walls caved in.
A day before and about 500 miles south, the same storm system left parts of Annapolis, Md.’s historic district submerged in nearly three feet of water. Its port and surrounding buildings date back to the 18th century and tell a vital story as one of the region’s earliest slave ports.
Damage to historic sites like this is just another example of how climate change increasingly threatens some of America’s most treasured historic places and landmarks, many of which hold extraordinary meaning. From the Statue of Liberty to the coast of Florida, rising sea levels and extreme weather puts our historic sites at risk. And it’s not just flooding; the effects of climate change likely worsened last year’s wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, that claimed 100 lives and devastated the town’s beloved historic district.
Without planning, investment and policy change, the American landscape will continue to be affected by similar events. The impacts on our economy, local tourism, and our ability to learn about and from our past will be profound and irreversible. The federal government must put more jobs, research dollars and data infrastructure to work in protecting and adapting our historic places to climate risk.
That’s why, as head of the federal historic preservation agency, I recently asked Congress to create a federal climate heritage office.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is tasked with working to protect our historic and cultural sites and stewarding the nation’s preservation agenda. Earlier this year, the Advisory Council adopted the federal government’s first policy statement on climate change and historic preservation. The statement urges decision-makers to take steps to make historic properties more resilient, to consider such properties during disaster preparedness and response, and to facilitate and invest in the reuse of historic buildings which can contribute to decarbonization. It also recognizes that many threatened sites impacted by climate change are disproportionately located in underserved communities, including many cultural landscapes and properties sacred to Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Establishing a U.S. climate heritage office would send a powerful signal about the urgency of addressing these challenges. Such an office would help enhance approaches to disaster recovery through regulatory and statutory recommendations. It would develop creative mitigation and adaptation strategies that architects, engineers and preservationists can use in the field. It would provide guidance on how building and energy codes can be modified to ensure historic buildings can mitigate climate change impacts. And it could coordinate government-wide plans to fortify historic infrastructure, including bridges and roads, as well as to protect or adapt cultural landscapes.
A climate heritage office would also help to identify and coordinate needed research. Staff could assess the potential of all types of climate risks — sea level rise, drought, wildfire and extreme precipitation, among them — to damage or destroy our historic and cultural resources. They could identify the best materials, methods, and structures to adapt these resources to fire, flood and other threats. And they could analyze which financial incentives and investments would maximize retention of historic places at risk.
Collaboration with Tribal and Indigenous people would also be essential and could inform effective climate resilience strategies. Understanding traditional cultural practices related to forest management, shoreline preservation, sustainable construction and centering nature-based solutions could benefit policymakers who need more tools to tackle this increasingly complex problem.
The American preservation, cultural resource and Tribal communities have collectively been raising the alarm about climate-based threats to our heritage for years. The establishment of a federal climate heritage office can be a decisive step toward fortifying our resilience, fostering innovation and preserving the stories that make us who we are.
Sara C. Bronin is the chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation of our nation’s diverse historic resources and advises the president and Congress on national historic preservation policy.
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