Global Design Futures blog: ‘Climate Refugees’
In the year of 2015 the European Union experienced an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants. With the Arab Spring and uprising civil wars, millions of people flew from different Middle Eastern countries seeking for asylum. The last massive flow of refugees into the EU was in the mid-1990s after the Yugoslav Wars. Between then and 2012, most European countries were living in peace and comfortably. When the migration crisis struck, European governments had to deal with a large number of arrivals very quickly without proper planning and clear orientation.
Refugee camps and hotspots were open and then shutdown, migration laws were written and rewritten and different european countries choose different ways of tackling the problem, while millions of people were seeking for asylum. The EU was clearly unprepared for the upcoming challenge it would face for the years ahead. But mustn’t we learn from our mistakes so we are better prepared for a next crisis?
Governments (and citizens) around the world seem to keep ignoring the next big migration crisis: climate and disaster displacement refugees. For my Global Design Future forecast I have chosen the topic of Climate Refugees. I asked myself the question: how can governments be better prepared for the next migration crisis? In this post will be reflecting on different trends and signals that have a direct or indirect impact in the topic.
Driver #1: Climate Change
“Research indicates that the Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that has exceeded most scientific forecasts. Some families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change, which has forced them to leave their homes in search of a new beginning.” (UNHCR, n.d.)
Predicting or forecasting the future can be extremely tricky. But there are trends, drivers or weak signals that can help us better understand the past, present and the future. Although some drivers can be hard to identify, some have factual data to support it and can’t (or shouldn’t) be ignored as they will certainly impact the future. Climate Change is one of them.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, the world is now 1 degree celsius warmer than it was previous to the widespread industrialisation (World Meteorological Organization, 2019). If this trend continues, the same source confirms that temperatures may rise by 3–5ºC by 2100. If we do not take dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies as we know it.
Sea levels are currently rising faster than at any time in the last 22 years and scientist predict an additional sea rise of between 0.9–1.2m by 2100 (Arup, n.d.). With nearly half of the world’s population located within 150km of a coastline, global sea level rise and coastal erosion will dramatically impact where people can live. Developing countries are at the frontline of this battle and are the ones that will suffer the most and the soonest, even though they are not the part of the world that have loaded those carbon oxides into the atmosphere in the first instance. As we can see in img.1. developing countries in Africa and Asia are the ones most at risk from climate change, although China, where the highest emission of C02 occurs, followed by the USA face very low risk from it.
Driver #2 : Consumerism
We tend to look at climate change and only think about rising sea levels, natural disasters and temperature levels. But climate can shake up everything from politics to economic health. In fact, a 2016 study shows that the effect of rising temperatures on workers productivity, particularly in Africa or Asia, could cost the global economy 2 trillion dollars by 2030 (Kjellstrom, 2016). But it can also change the way we access daily products and therefore, our consumerism habits.
Let’s think of the way we purchase goods nowadays. From chicken wings to a king size bed, everything is one click away. Consumerism depends on continuous cycle of manufacture, transport and disposal that impacts the environment as well as the economy. But what if goods weren’t as accessible in the future was they are nowadays? We got to used to have everything accessible in ever-increasing amounts, but things might change.
As we now go on Amazon and purchase items without even having to fill our bank details, I challenge the reader to imagine a future where daily goods were constantly unavailable due to its scarcity? Think about the last time you went to buy clothes in H&M. What if, as you walked into H&M, the stores shelves were empty with few pairs of jeans and even fewer shirts hanged in the racks? And everyone who is shopping was fighting for those items as if their life depends on it?
It might be hard to visualize, but that truth might not be that far away. H&M produces most of their clothes in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Indonesia (Sustainability.hm, n.d.). In fact, many of these developing countries where H&M produces their clothes, are the ones who are facing the biggest risks regarding Climate Change (The Eco Experts, n.d.). Let’s take Bangladesh as an example. A recent study shows that sea level rises is likely to force 200.000 coastal residents to migrate and in 120 years, coastal areas, currently home to 1.3 billion people, are projected to be overwhelmed by sea level rise (Joyce, 2018). So what would happen if countries were big corporations have manufacturing facilities were to submerge or disappear? Will westerners still be able to have the access to daily goods as they do today? Or will we face a shortage in stocks and shift our consumer habits?
Driver #3 : Overpopulation and diminishing resources
Populations is growing rapidly, far outpacing our planet’s ability to provide for that much people. By 2050, the world population will be up to 9 billion and there is no clear answer on how to provide clean water, sustainable energy and education for that number of people.
Ecological overshoot is the point past which the population of a given area requires more natural resources and ecosystem services than the ones that can be sustainably provided resulting in sufficiencies. By 2025, more than half of the world’s’ population will live in water-stressed areas due to water sufficiency (Arup, n.d.). In countries where economies rely on rainfall climate change-driven droughts and floods can result in waves of migration, political instability and violence.
Lack of natural resources will affect not only affect the planet, but also the economic development, health and wellbeing of the world. In fact, high population growth can result in unsustainable demand for public sector services, especially on least developed countries. In such countries, the public cost of providing education and ensuring health services is challenged by the rapidly increasing numbers of children and youth.
“Because the children that will join the workforce over the next 15 years have already been born, the least developed countries can expect that over 200 million people will be added to the population of working age by 2025.” (United Nations, 2010)
Unemployment together with lack of accessible public sector services and lack of weather stability (for agricultural purposes) can result in huge waves of migration, political instability and violence. But although we’ve been speaking about developing countries, developed ones, might also face similar risks. United Kingdom’s’ 2019 population is is 66.96 million according to the most recent UN estimates and currently growing at a rate of .61% per year (Un.org, 2019). Another issue which governments have to contend with during this time is the aging population, which has seen a doubling of retired persons since the year 2000. People are living longer, healthier lives. The NHS provider sector as a whole ended 2017/18 with a deficit of £960 million ( The Kings Fund, 2018). What could happen if UK populations keeps growing?
Climate change can shake up everything from politics to economic health. Together with high population growth, it can generate unsustainable demand for public sector services and therefore political instability. Within few years, countries around the world will experience water-stressed issues due to water sufficiency. Countries that rely on climate for their economy stability will face many challenges that will likely result in waves of migration, political instability and violence.
According to a new study, the number of migrants attempting to settle in Europe each year will triple by the end of the century based on current climate trends alone, independent of other political and economic factors (Missirian and Schlenker, 2017) . An increase in temperatures in developing countries is predicted to lead to an increase in asylum applications to the EU. Weather impacts in low-income source countries will not be confined to those countries or regions but will instead likely spill over into developed countries through increased refugee flows.
What if countries facing real risk of climate change would come together and create a United States of Climate Refugees that would protect their rights?
United Countries of Climate Refugees
The climate change problem we are facing has been being avoided (or at least not prioritised) for some years now. It’s a problem with existential proof and a lot of research and data to sustain it, so why aren’t we being more proactive to solve it? What is holding us back?
The UN’s for main purposes are: Maintaining worldwide peace and security. Developing relations among nations. Fostering cooperation between nations in order to solve economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian international problems (Un.org, n.d.).
“ From the start in 1945, one of the main priorities of the United Nations was to “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character (…) Improving people’s well-being continues to be one of the main focuses of the UN. The global understanding of development has changed over the years, and countries now have agreed that sustainable development — development that promotes prosperity and economic opportunity, greater social well-being, and protection of the environment — offers the best path forward for improving the lives of people everywhere.” (Un.org, n.d.)
Those who will leave their home countries behind because of environmental impacts are not considered refugees and therefore, they are not protected under international law. Currently, these people are classified as migrants, which implies their move is voluntary, even if in the future it might me a matter of life or death. This means that they would not be afforded a lot of the necessary benefits required to escape and survive their situation.
What if countries facing real risk of climate change would come together and create a United States of Climate Refugees that will protect those climate migrants and their interests under international laws?
The idea behind The United Countries of Climate Refugees is to build an intergovernmental organization that is tasked to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations and achieve international co-operation tackling climate change.
For an artifact, I was thinking how to get world leaders to take notice of a problem and come together to solve it? What kind of artifact holds that kind of power?
This Climate Migrant Passport was conceptualize to prompt the conversation around the next huge migration wave the world will to face. It raises very difficult questions, such as, “Where will they go once displaced?”, “Who will accept them?” and, “What’s next?” and also consider the political, social and economical implications of such crisis.
Economical, Political and Religious implications
“Migration is a deeply emotional issue that gets under everyone’s skin and polarizes society. Touching on the sense of identity of groups and nations, it mobilizes solidarity in some people but triggers fear and hate in others.” (Lehne, 2018)’
As we have already seen with the previous refugee crisis in 2015, the EU will face challenges that it’s not ready to face. Will the european union countries stay together to response to the next crisis? Will EU countries have overcome their fundamental differences on burden sharing and solidarity?
Many people predicted that the refugee crisis in 2015 will break the EU experiment, but even with all the different views on what should be the EU’s response to the crisis, the EU managed to survive. But will it survive another major migration wave and all that comes with it? What’s the very essence of the EU: is it a real community or just a group of states bound by transactional arrangements? Should the decision on who lives in a state be regulated by Brussels?
Religion in Europe changed dramatically over the last century. In the early 1900s, Christianity held a monopoly in Europe . A hundred years later, it is in decline while other religions are growing. A Pew Research Center study predicts that the muslim population in some European countries could triple as a percentage by 2050. The study considers three different possible scenarios: zero migration, medium migration and High migration. Under the high migration scenario, the study projects the the record flow of migrants who came to Europe between 2015 and 2016 would continue indefinitely, resulting in 75 million Muslims in Europe by the middle of the century (Pew Research Center, n.d.). Will Europe ever become a Muslim continent if we constantly allow migrants to get asylum in Europe?
In the last refugee crisis, in some EU member states, nationalism and identity politics gained ground, and xenophobic views have become commonplace. Some populist and extreme political forces gained forces, benefiting from the citizens anxiety and lack of knowledge about migration and its possible impacts. Will the next crisis even give more ground to such political forces and mainstream politics, leading to a racist EU? Were european nations entitled to defend their individual cultural and ethnic distinctiveness in the first place? Or was the EU destined to become a multiracial globalized space?
Although huge waves of migration tend to arise different challenges and problems, there might be some opportunities in this scenario. Europe’s population is getting older. According to The European Commission 2018 Ageing Report, the total population in the EU is projected to increase from 511 million in 2016 to 520 million in 2070. However, the working-age population (people aged between 15 and 64) will decrease significantly from 333 million in 2016 to 292 million in 2070 (Economic and Financial Affairs, 2018). In this scenario, can the climate migration crisis become an opportunity for the challenges Europe will face with an ageing population? Will Europe be able to turn the climate refugees crisis into an opportunity?
The possibilities and implications of the upcoming wave of climate migration very from different sectors and are undeniable. It’s time that we start to openly speak and discuss about such topic, in order to be able to response to it in the best way possible. Although being fully prepared for such a crisis is almost impossible, as there are always unpredictable implications, the climate change agenda needs to be prioritised and actively discussed.
“This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.” (Dunne and Raby, 2013)
When the Unites Countries of Climate Migrant Passport was conceptualised, it aimed to provoke different emotions, questions, discussions and perspective from different viewers. It was conceived to shock and to be criticised. Afterall, what is Speculative Design if not an art to challenge our own imagination and ways of thinking? Through paying attention to different signals and drivers, we can explore possible, plausible, probable and preferable futures where we explore the unknown future ahead of us.
Being myself a former UX Designer and now studying Service Design, it is a great challenge for me to broaden my horizons and let my mind flow to non functional and hypothetical worlds without confining myself with the different aspects of the world that we live in today. What I’ve come to realise is that by using Speculative Design as a tool for critical reflections, we can consider many different schools of thinking when designing a new product, service or artifact. In the western world, Design is commonly known as a tool for problem solving and is many times restrained by the values, attitudes and behaviors we face today. Speculation, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to consider other possibilities and challenge the boundaries of the world.
Ethically, as a designer, my passion relies on creating sustainable solutions that have an impact in the world that we live in. As straightforward as that may sound, sustainable design takes into consideration disciplines that very from political sciences to fine arts. Until recently, I never fully understood that Speculative Design could be a tool to help me do so.
This Global Design Futures exercise made me reflect on how can we, as designers, politicians, regulators, entrepreneurs, scientists and, above all, humans, start exploring different possible, plausible, probable and preferable futures where we consider different solutions and implications for the upcoming migration crises? It’s about time for the climate change agenda to start being prioritised and openly discussed not only individually, but also as united world, where different governments and organisations work together to solve this challenge. Climate change is undeniable. It’s about time we start to face it.
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