Fri, Mar 17, 2006 - Page 7 News List

UNESCO meets on climate threat to heritage sites

ENVIRONMENTAL THREAT The Bush administration has tried to block any move at the Paris summit to cite climate change as a reason to add sites to the endangered list

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In this Jan. 23 photo released by Center of Marine Studies, the University of Queensland, fish swim among bleached coral near the Keppel Islands in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Scientists warn that the bleaching is caused by above average water temperatures.

PHOTO: AP

UN experts were to hold an emergency meeting yesterday aimed at protecting some of the world's natural wonders from the escalating threat of climate change.

Melting glaciers on Mount Everest and damage to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia have prompted calls for the UN to acknowledge officially that global warming poses a danger to some of its world heritage sites. A move to add these and other sites to the endangered list were to be discussed at a special summit meeting in Paris.

Thirty-four of the world's 812 natural and cultural features listed as world heritage sites by UNESCO are on the danger list, threatened by war, neglect or development. Adding sites at risk from rising temperatures would send a powerful political signal about the impact of climate change, and increase pressure on UN members to take action to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

The US administration, which is opposed to such action, has tried to block any move at the Paris meeting to invoke climate change as a reason to add sites to the endangered list.

The meeting follows petitions to the UN from environmental campaigners to class five sites as endangered: Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, which includes Everest; the Peruvian Andes; Waterton International Peace Park in the US and Canada; the Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef.

"This meeting is very important for the people of Nepal, as well as for all the people of the world. We are watching UNESCO to see how it fulfils its responsibility to transmit world heritage sites under threat from climate change to future generations," said Prakash Sharma, director of Friends of the Earth Nepal, who led the Everest petition.

Studies show snow and ice cover in the eastern Himalayas has shrunk by about 30 percent since the 1970s. Melting glaciers have created lakes in the mountains, which could burst and cause widespread flooding.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, has supported the move to add the mountain to the danger list, which would compel the UN to monitor the situation more carefully and take action to drain the glacial lakes.

Candy Gonzalez, of the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy, said rising sea temperatures would damage coral reefs across the world.

"The Belize Barrier Reef is fragile and needs special care. Losing the wonder and the beauty of the reef for future generations because of short-term gain and greed would be too painful to bear," she said.

Plant cells within coral struggle to cope with warmer water and parts of the Great Barrier Reef have already died, draining it of its vibrant colors.

Experts have warned the entire reef could perish within a few decades, with most others dying off by the end of the century.

The other two sites under discussion are threatened by melting glaciers. Glacier National Park, the US side of the world heritage site, once had 150 glaciers; only 27 remain. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the biggest are now a third of the size they were in 1850, and continued warming could melt them completely by 2030.

In a briefing note prepared for the Paris meeting, UNESCO said: "There is little doubt climate change will impact on the natural values and integrity of world heritage sites, thus affecting their outstanding universal value and, potentially, their listing as a natural world heritage property. If a site was inscribed for its glaciers, and the glaciers melt, is it `no glaciers -- no world heritage site?'"

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