KWI – Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Intitut Essen, KWI)

Research areas

Project Climates of Migration - Historical Intersections of Climate Change and Environmental Migrations

Principal investigators: Dr. Franz Mauelshagen (KWI), Dr. Uwe Lübken, Prof Dr. Christof Mauch (Rachel Carson Center, Munich)

Funded by Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Duration: until 06/2014


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: 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.
  • CLIMATES OF COLONISATION: 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.

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.