Addressing the refugee crisis through climate action

By: Joe Speicher, executive director of the Autodesk Foundation

As a matter of course, I don’t assign a lot of value to “World __________ Day” (Environment, Cancer, Oceans — there’s even a World Rabies Day). These dates serve as indicators that we, as a global society, need to be reminded annually to redouble our efforts, and that we are not making significant progress on many challenging causes.

However, given all that’s happening across the planet, I’ll make an exception today, for World Refugee Day. This is one where we can, and must, make progress. The solution is counter intuitive, but also within our grasp and it’s climate change. If we solve for the causes and consequences of climate change, it will affect one of the largest underlying causes of forced migration and refugees on the planet.

The US Department of Defense has acknowledged the increased risk of conflict due to climate change and there’s evidence to suggest that the Syrian conflict was sparked by droughts amplified by climate change. Strides are being taken to mitigate the situation. The UN’s Paris Agreement has created a task force on human displacement and we’re already resettling climate refugees in the US.

There are an estimated 65 million refugees worldwide and the impacts of a changing climate will only increase that number. This is driven by rising sea levels, proliferation of extreme weather events, increasing pressure on food and water resources and ultimately, reshaping the landscape of human habitable zones. Approximately 180–500 million people are at risk for continuous flooding and rising sea levels due to climate change.

The global push on climate initiatives

While there are many drivers of forced migration — political instability, poverty, conflict, etc. — climate change either exacerbates or is an underlying cause of what contributes to the refugee crisis, and it’s an opportunity where we can take action. This is as empowering as it is daunting.

There are an estimated 65 million refugees worldwide and the impacts of a changing climate will only increase that number.

With a strong global push to address climate change, we have a shot at keeping refugees to manageable levels that we can successfully relocate and resettle. President Trump’s short-sighted and politicized decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement has catalyzed corporations, states and cities to do even more for climate change such as reducing emissions, which will combat climatic changes as well as adapt to a warmer planet.

This has created a path forward to solve two global challenges at the same time. When we connect the dots, it makes sense. Less climate change and more resilient communities will lead to less forced migration and refugees.

In terms of preparing for a warmer planet, coastal cities are just now awakening to the risks and impacts related to climate change. A coalition of public and private interests here in the San Francisco Bay Area have come together to launch Resilience by Design, an effort to design solutions to the imminent rising sea levels.

Designing infrastructure solutions for rising sea levels and storm surges requires considerable investment. But with some forethought and planning, we can significantly reduce the impacts of rising sea levels — much like rebuilding New York after Superstorm Sandy to be more resilient to more extreme weather.

These lighthouse examples will pave the way for more investment in resilient climate infrastructure and ultimately, demonstrate that an ounce of prevention will save us from massive coastal migrations, with millions of forced migrants and stranded assets in coastal cities.

Designing for change could be the solution

So, what are we doing about climate change at Autodesk? We are looking at everything with a design and engineering lens, asking the question of what role can design play in solving these challenges. This line of questioning has led us to several opportunities for designing solutions to the refugee crisis.

The most immediate need is housing our current refugee population. The United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for housing over 20 million refugees globally. Autodesk provides software and services to UNHCR’s settlement team to design and build refugee camps faster and better. Together, we’re improving the refugee experience, and allowing for resources to be devoted to issues like relocation and resettlement.

Our partners over at the IKEA Foundation are pioneering a number of initiatives supporting refugees currently in settlements, including better shelters and providing work to Syrian refugees. We applaud these efforts and continue to look for ways to leverage our intellectual and human capital to do the same.

Thinking about World Refugee Day, what can you do to help? Continue to fight for reducing the impacts of climate change. We can rally to de-politicize climate, as has been done outside of the US. Support companies taking action on climate change and those that have committed to the Paris Agreement. Consider helping the UNHCR to support a better future for all refugees. Design a solution, innovate for change and submit your ideas to the Climate Action Challenge, sponsored by What Design Can Do.

We’re only scratching the surface of a gargantuan global problem. However, if enough individuals, cities and corporations, recognize that a healthy and prosperous society is good for business, then we can solve the refugee crisis. We’ll know we’ve been successful when World Refugee Day becomes regular old June 20th.