Migrant Knowledge

GHI Lecture Series—Moving Out of Harm’s Way: Historical Perspectives on Climate-related Mobilities

Editorial note: As we indicated in our #MigKnow Notes 16 last week, the GHI Washington is hosting a lecture series this spring on a topic pertinent to the blog’s theme (indeed, the series was organized by two of our blog’s own editors). With the first lecture approaching on March 2, 2023, we would like to present the rationale and lecture abstracts for the series here on the blog. We hope that many of our readers will be able to attend online (Zoom streaming) or in person. For the first time, the GHI Washington is conducting the series at its two sites: The March 2 and April 13 lectures will take place in Washington, DC, and the April 6 and May 4 lectures will be on the UC Berkeley campus. For specific times and locations, please register for the individual lectures at the links below.

“Climate-related migration,” “disaster mobility,” and “climate refugees” have become salient topics in the last decade in both the political and scholarly realms. Models designed to get a better understanding of how environmental change can lead to migration have predicted staggering numbers of people being forced to move out of the world’s tropical zones because of heat and drought. In 2018, the World Bank’s “Groundswell” report predicted that without climate action Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could see more than 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050. More recently, a model created by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine estimated that in the most extreme climate scenarios more than 30 million migrants could be heading toward the U.S. border over the course of the next thirty years. But not only the tropical zones are and will be impacted by the effects of climate change. Record high temperatures, like those seen during the summer of 2022, flooding caused by tropical storms, or extreme rainfall will affect people all over the globe. Looking at the US only, the numbers are already mind-boggling. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, different kinds of disasters have rendered on average about a million Americans homeless each year during the past decade.

Such numbers, however flawed some predictions may be, all point out a similar trend: climate change, along with the disastrous weather events it precipitates, are producing new mobilities, which will further increase as changing weather patterns affect more and more places. Tied to such mobilities are innumerable stories about the suffering of those who are forced to leave behind their homes, families, and communities. But such mobilities also pose increasingly urgent questions about how societies respond to changing climate conditions and migratory flows. How are we to adapt to places becoming inhabitable? What can be done to mitigate the consequences of climate change or the mobility it produces? Will we close our borders to those who have no other choice than to resettle or do we extend our help? These questions call for opening up perspectives to envision new solutions and bringing in a wide variety of viewpoints to the relevant societal debates.

The lecture series that the German Historical Institute Washington is presenting together with its Pacific Office this spring seeks to contribute to these debates. In four lectures, two organized at the GHI Washington and two at the Pacific Office at UC Berkeley (both in person and available for streaming), four specialists will explore the relation between human mobility and climate change or climate disaster from the early modern period to our own time. They will chart the various ways in which people in the United States, Bangladesh, Europe, the Middle East, and Vietnam have grappled with the need to move out of harm’s way, whether that harm was a sudden flood or a slow drought leading to famine. The lectures follow those who migrated to examine how they grappled with their fate and balanced risk management and economic opportunity, yet the speakers also provide a more general overview of the state of climate migration research. With the help of this historical perspective, the lecture series aims to explore new ways of thinking about climate-related mobilities today and in the future.

The 1948 Flooding of Vanport, Oregon: Leqacies of Disaster and Displacement

Uwe Lübken, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

March 2, 2023 | 6pm ET at GHI Washington in DC


Vanport, Oregon, was created in 1942 as a huge public housing project to accommodate thousands of workers who had flocked to the region to work for the wartime industries. Erected between the city limits of Portland, Oregon, and the Columbia River on reclaimed bottom lands, Vanport was entirely inundated by a flood in 1948 and never rebuilt. At that time some 18,000 people, down from the wartime peak of 40,000, still lived in Vanport, many of them African Americans. While the fate of Vanport’s “flood refugees” has been almost completely ignored for decades, there has been a surge in “memory activism” in the more recent past. This talk will highlight the intersections of marginalized communities and marginal environments, it will address cultural encounters with the legacy of displacement and reflect on issues of environmental justice and disaster memory.

Putting Contemporary Climate Migration in Context: What Do We Know from Two Decades of Research?

Amanda Carrico, University of Colorado Boulder

April 6, 2023 | 3:30pm PT at UC Berkeley


Migration has long been used as a strategy for households to access economic opportunity and manage risk. As climate change intensifies in the 21st century, environmental stress is expected to play an even larger role in population mobility around the world. This observation has sparked questions about how climate change might shift the patterns and processes of migration, including who migrates, where they go, and the experiences of migrants and their families. This lecture will present recent and noteworthy findings from the growing literature on climate change and migration. Using coastal Bangladesh as a case study, the talk will include new data to illustrate the complex ways that climate stress interacts with socioeconomic conditions to influence mobility and migration.

“Little Ice Age” Disasters and Migration: Insights for (and from) Global Warming?

Sam White, University of Helsinki

April 13, 2023 | 6pm ET at GHI Washington in DC


Faced with present issues of anthropogenic warming and migration, what insights can we glean from past episodes of natural climate variability and human vulnerability? This lecture will explore research on climate and migration during episodes of the “Little Ice Age” from the late 1500s to early 1800s and consider the potential and risks of drawing lessons for the present. Working from insights and methods of contemporary climate migration research, as well as advances in historical climate reconstruction, historians are now positioned to offer stronger analyses of how climate and meteorological disasters influenced migration during past centuries. Utilizing case studies from the Little Ice Age, this lecture will reflect upon possibilities for new research and propose historical patterns that could help us understand the roles of climate change in 21st-century migration.

Climate Displacement in the Shadow of War: Feminist Refugee Perspectives on Hydro-disaster

Heidi-Amin-Hong, University of California, Santa Barbara

May 4, 2023 | 3:30pm PT at UC Berkeley


Centering feminist and refugee critiques of war and empire, this talk bridges histories of hydropower development and climate displacement across the Mekong Delta region with narratives of Southeast Asian refugee resettlement in the United States. It traces the genesis of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1966 to demonstrate how US and Japanese inter-imperial interests during the Cold War shaped hydropower as a symbol of modernity in Southeast Asia and built infrastructures that would displace communities already impacted by war. Literature and visual art by Southeast Asian American writers and artists critically analyze histories of ADB-funded dams and flood management projects as continuous with the forced displacement of Southeast Asian refugees due to the US-Vietnam War.

Featured image: Poster for the lecture series featuring “Drought refugees from South Dakota. Montana“ from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Poster design by Bryan Hart.