Climates of Migration


Historical Intersections of Climate Change and Environmental Migrations

The three-year research project Climates of Migration is a common project of The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen (KWI), generously funded by the German federal Ministry of Education and Research. The project looks at the historical intersections between environmental change and migration and is particularly interested in climate-induced movements of people in the past. Six individual projects consisting out of four dissertations and two post-doctoral projects, will shed light on how, where, and why people migrated as a result of droughts, cold periods, floods, hurricanes, and other extreme natural events.

The team will also develop a chronological database CLIMMIGRATION.dat with examples of environmental migration in the last 500 years, weighing the social and environmental factors that played a role. Both individual research and the collaborative project will focus on three main thematic areas: Climates of Famine, Climates of Colonisation, and Disaster Migration.

  • Climates of Famine
    Research in this area aims to analyze how climate and climate change have triggered famine in the past. Using famine theories, climate reconstructions and ethnohistoric methods, projects will look at the correlation between the environment and migration from a “push” perspective and with respect to adaptation strategies.
  • Famine in Ireland caused massive migration
  • Climates of Colonization
    Rather than focusing on migration as an effect of environmental/climate change, this thematic area questions what it means to experience climate change as an effect of migration, and what influence this has on a communities social and political practice. It aims to find out how social assumptions about the climate-culture nexus organized and legitimized social hierarchies in colonial times.\
  • Disaster Migration
    This thematic area explores sudden rather than long-term environmental stressors, such as floods, hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes. Such severe natural events very often destroy livelihoods and thus turn into catastrophes, forcing people to move. The question arises, when exactly does their dispacement exactly turn into migration. The answer depends on a variety of contextual factors, such as individual, social, and cultural coping capacities; the situation at the origin; and the destination of these “refugees.” Research in this area thus not only takes into account the events themselves, but also (long-term) patterns of vulnerability and resilience.

The project members have organized several small research workshops with leading scholars in the field such as:

In early August 2011, scholars from around the world gathered at the Internationales Begegnungszentrum in Munich for the first of three international conferences of the Climates of Migration project. The main and most important result of this conference was the insight that “environmental migration” is a much more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than usually acknowledged. The sixteen individual presentations highlighted the diversity of the migration/environment nexus in different places at different times. Case studies from Alaska, India, Bolivia, Australia, and many other places emphasized how environmental factors often played an important part in individual decisions to move or migrate. In most cases these environmental reasons were, however, accompanied by deliberations on social, economic, ethnic or cultural grounds.

After three years the case studies and individual projects will be summarized and analyzed in a synthesis study, which will give insight in the dynamics, characteristics and diversity of the phenomena of environmental migration. The research results will be published and presented digitally in the database CLIMMIGRATION.dat, explained with a non-deterministic model for the description of the relation between climate and migration. It will take the social, political and ecological components of human interaction into account; balancing societal and natural environmental factors to overcome the dualism between natural and social science.

A rich overview of case studies will serve scientists and scholars with ideas for potential future research. The project findings will give an important insight in climatically induced migration. The results of the research project will contribute to the improvement of scenario building on climate impact research and environmental migration.

One thought on “Climates of Migration

  1. Anne Hicks says:

    Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmental refugees.

    Environmental migrants, therefore, are persons making a short-lived, cyclical, or longerterm change of residence, of a voluntary or forced character, due to specific environmental factors. Environmental refugees form a specific type of environmental migrant.

    Environmental refugees, therefore, are persons compelled to spontaneous, short-lived, cyclical, or longer-term changes of residence due to sudden or gradually worsening changes in environmental factors important to their living, which may be of either a short-term or an irreversible character.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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