President Donald Trump blows off the seriously worrisome implications of human-driven climate change with hardly a thought. But this ignorance-is-bliss approach may not have been an option for his grandfather.
A new study documents how over five millions Germans, including Trump’s grandfather Frederick Trump, emigrated to North America in the mid-19th century during a period of extreme climate variability that added to other hardships, such as poverty and war. Published Tuesday in the journal Climate of the Past, the study found that climate indirectly explains up to 20 to 30 percent of migration from Southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century.
“The chain of effects is clearly visible: poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices and finally emigration,” said Rüdiger Glaser, a professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and lead author of the study, in a statement.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed 19th century migration statistics, population data, weather data, and harvest figures. While today we are dealing with runaway global warming, the mid-eighteenth century was actually the end of a cold period called the Little Ice Age. This period was known for chilly winters, cool summers, and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. The first wave of emigration from Southwest Germany occurred after the the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815, which spewed volcanic ash into the atmosphere and led to the “year without summer” in 1816. On average, temperatures in Europe during the 19th century were nearly 1 degree Celsius cooler in comparison to the 1961–1990 climate normals.
“Another peak-migration year, 1846, had an extremely hot and dry summer leading to bad harvests and high food prices,” said Annette Bösmeier, a researcher at the University of Freiburg who also involved in the study, in a statement. “These two years of high migration numbers appear to be quite strongly influenced by climate changes, while for other migration waves other circumstances appeared to be more important.”
Trump’s grandfather emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to the United States in 1885 when he was just 16. Upon arriving in New York he moved in with his older sister Katharina and worked as a barber for a number of years. While the exact circumstances surrounding his emigration are uncertain, CNN reports that German historian Roland Paul recently claimed he “was kicked out of his native Germany for failing to do his mandatory military service there.” Sounds familiar.
Other Germans to emigrate to the U.S. during this period of climactic variability include Henry John Heinz, founder of the Heinz Company—best known for its ketchup—and the founders of American pharmaceutical juggernaut, Pfizer.
While people’s decisions to leave their home country were based on everything from economic pressure to religious disputes to family ties, the climate was a significant part of the decision-making process.
“Migration in the 19th century was a complex process influenced by multiple factors,” said Glaser. “Nevertheless, we see clearly that climate was a major factor.”
Over a century ago, a harsh climate may have been a major factor in emigration patterns. Today, climate change is viewed as a “threat multiplier” in similar scenarios. Roughly 25 million people, mainly from island states, have been displaced annually due climate change-related events in recent years.
According to the UN Refugee Agency “climate change sows seeds for conflict, but it also makes displacement much worse when it happens.”
A recent report from the Environmental Justice Foundation determined that over the course of the next decade, tens of millions of people will become climate refugees, creating the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen.
Perhaps if Frederick Trump were still around he could convince his grandson to be more proactive on climate change and to more seriously consider the devastating human impacts. But if Ivanka Trump’s efforts show us anything, it’s that just because you’re family doesn’t mean the President will heed your advice.
Update: A previous version of this post included a statement from an outside source that was not properly attributed. The text has been updated to clarify the source of the language and properly attribute it.