"As of today, 80 million people are displaced by conflict and natural disasters globally and that's a figure that has grown dramatically," warns Johan Karlsson, the Managing Director at Better Shelter. "When I started working in this space some 10 years ago, that figure was closer to 40 million," he tells Highsnobiety. Access to shelter is critical to the survival of climate migrants and it's going to be a defining challenge for our generation.
One response to that is STRUCTURE, a new consumer-powered initiative by Better Shelter. The project asks people from the Global North to fund a new system that is already responding to the most critical and existential threats to humanity as we know it.
”STRUCTURE is an approach designed to provide immediate disaster aid and enable communities to transition from emergency to recovery," Karlsson explains. In an ideal world, all emergency responses would be local but climate change is displacing people in the hardest-to-reach locations with increasing frequency. "In the most difficult types of situations, prefabricated shelter remains the final safety net. STRUCTURE combines the two approaches,” deploying prefabricated structures that can incorporate local materials and cater to cultural and environmental demands.
"Climate change is much larger than we understand because of the nature of extreme weather events. You can spot a tornado or a hurricane or a landslide quite easily," Karlsson explains, "but natural disasters are also changing the landscape and it gets difficult for people to keep their livestock. That may lead them to need to move or cross borders or relocate within their own borders."
"Researchers say that by 2050, we would have 200 million displaced people. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has said 250 million. And there are some reports that go up even to 1 billion people. So we don't know exactly how many will get affected by climate change, but we know it is a very steep increase from what we're seeing today." Karlsson stresses that this historic displacement won't start in 2050 — "it's happening now."
Until recently, a disaster would be met with emergency relief that would support communities until they could rebuild their homes. But the increasing severity and frequency of natural disasters are rendering old aid models ineffective. "It's usually best for communities and their environment to build their structures from local materials. STRUCTURE comes in when that isn't possible."
"In the event of a natural disaster, it's crucial to build enough shelters to serve displaced people as quickly as possible. STRUCTURE's standardized solution means structures can be erected quickly to reduce suffering and save lives." In the near future, scientists and analysts predict a seismic displacement of people in South America, South East Asia, and even inside the US — and these shelters will be deployed to help those communities when it happens.
This year, STRUCTURE will scale up programs with the aim to reach thousands of families and they're offering people the chance to take an active role in assisting with the funding, distribution, and deployment of these critical shelters. For $365 a year, or just over $30 a month, contributors can cover the cost of a STRUCTURE shelter, which can house up to five people and last for 10 years. Head to their website to donate.
As local economies rebuild and communities reunite, the structures can be repurposed to meet their changing needs. "We're providing a very solid frame that you can upgrade over time to make into a more permanent shelter or if you are in a situation where you can rebuild your old house," he explains, "the steel you can use to structure shelter to upgrade it to a coffee shop or a stable."
The structures are also modular so they can quickly be converted into an emergency shelter by draping it in standard-sized tarpaulin sheets. The adaptability of the shelter is key to its success because, in a variety of environments and climates, the shelters can be altered as needed to meet the needs of the community at hand. With increasing incidents of migrant crises and natural disaster-related to climate change, they're learning more and more about how best to serve displaced people. In 2015, for example, Swiss and German authorities raised concerns about the fire safety of the shelters that were housing refugees in over-cramped camps.
The initiative has already helped people in India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Rwanda, and last year they even sent 50 shelters to the US. Karlsson admits, "It's a place where I never would have imagined we would work when I started working in this space some 10 years ago. And I can see it's coming up more and more. There have been quite some articles in the New York Times lately about impacts on climate and displacement within the US I think we're going to see an unfortunate trend there."
While the initiative is appealing to donors from the Global North, he stresses that the climate crisis won't just displace people in the Global South. Last year, more than 8,100 wildfires have burned over 3.9 million acres in California. The fires killed 30 people, destroyed more than 7,500 structures, and displaced thousands in the state. Meanwhile, The Urban Institute estimated that in 2018 more than 1.2 million Americans left their homes for climate-related reasons.
As younger generations begin to understand that the spike in natural disasters in their backyard is a product of climate change, Karlsson hopes that they will be able to empathize with the plight of displaced people in the Global South. Better Shelter hopes that as Global North audiences become more cognizant of the very present impact of the climate crisis they will be motivated to play a part in donating and essentially funding this new system of support.