Grandfather Trump Might Have Been a Climate Migrant

A drastic change of the climate was one of the causes for a wave of German emigration to the United States in the 19th century. The grandfather of Donald Trump, originally from Germany, was one of the emigrants to also make the crossing of the Atlantic in this period.

Climate scientists have long warned that climate change will have a major effect on current and future migration patterns. A team of German scientists has now taken a look at how climate change influenced the large-scale emigration that took place from Germany to the U.S. in the 19th century, and came to some remarkable conclusions.

The scientific study, led by the University of Freiburg and published in the Journal Climate of the Past, established a clear connection between a changing climate, failing crops and mass-emigration to the U.S. from the Germany’s Southwest province of Baden-Württemberg. During two distinct events of extreme weather, a “year without summer” in 1816 and a scorching hot summer in 1846, crop failure directly led to an increased emigration out of the area.

“The chain of effects is clearly visible: poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices and finally emigration,” states Rüdiger Glaser, lead author of the study.

More than 5 million Germans moved to the U.S. in the 19th century, one of them was Friedrich Trump, grandfather of the current U.S. president, who arrived in New York in 1885 as a sixteen year old without any education and only speaking German.

Climate as a piece of the puzzle

Climate change does not cover the full load however, when looking at the push factors that force people to emigrate.

“The effect of climate on migration is only one piece of the puzzle,” states Glaser. “Overall, we found that climate indirectly explains up to 20 to 30 per cent of migration from southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century. Other pressures have certainly contributed to the migration.”

Poverty, wars and revolutions during the first half of the 19th century also steered many Germans to look for  a brighter future overseas. Other political factors, like the Crimean War (1853-1856), in which France banned food export and German grain prices rose, also left their mark.

“Migration in the 19th century was a complex process influenced by multiple factors. Lack of economic perspectives, social pressure, population development, religious and political disputes, warfare, family ties and the promotion of emigration from different sides influenced people’s decision to leave their home country,” stated Glaser. “Nevertheless, we see clearly that climate was a major factor.”

Climate Migration on the Rise

More and more research is making a clear connection between climate and migration. Studies have shown that by 2100, up to 2 billion people could have been forced into displacement due to the climate. Certain parts of the world, like North Africa and the Middle East, are expected to become uninhabitable due to climate change, creating a potential exodus out of the region.

Also within the U.S., climate migrants are expected to rise exponentially as coastal cities get more and more inundated by rising sea-levels.

Clearly identifying the factors that drive people out of their homes, however, whether it is climate change, conflict or a combination of many causes, remains a challenge. The science to connect climate change and migration is only just now getting a grasp on this complex issue. But time is running thin.

“Part of the success of this research case lies in the fact that the Duchies and Kingdoms of the region already collected data: they described their harvest and the movement of people very precisely,” explains Glaser. “Without such precise data on peoples movements, as is the case with many migration events today, building a solid scientific base for climate migration remains difficult.”

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist passionate about biodiversity and climate change action. He’s been involved in research teams all over the world, and recently joined the Climate Tracker team as a campaign manager.