Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity
Ethics, Law and Politics Department

Inhouse discussion


25 June 2020

held virtually via video conferencing


The topic of climate change is one of the most pressing topics of our times. At the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity climate change and sustainability are crucial at two levels: on the one hand, at the scientific level with regard to the nexus between climate change and migration, affecting international mobility, social cohesion and diversity. On the other hand, the topic of climate change and sustainability is of central importance at a practical, institutional and more individual level with regard to our concrete commitments as researchers, employees and members of the Max Planck Society to reduce our harmful emissions and to contribute to a more sustainable environment. The inhouse discussion on “climate change and migration” and “pathways to sustainability” explored these two levels in order to launch a discussion about how we as a Max Planck institute can contribute to the fight against the global climate crisis by researching it’s consequences on migration and by becoming more aware of our individual and institutional responsibilities and opportunities for change. The event successfully brought together presenters and participants from the different departments, including academic as well as administrative staff, who presented project ideas rather than fully developed research papers in order to explore avenues for further work on climate change and sustainability in both theory and practice.

Recording of the Zoom Meeting


Panel 1:          Democratic and Institutional Perspectives

Panel 1 on democratic and institutional perspectives focused on the global, macro-level of how climate change and migration interrelate and mutually reinforce each other. Ali Emre Benli’s presentation on “Democratic Legitimacy and Mass Displacement” explored the political rights of climate refugees. Taking the current international framework for forced displacement as a starting point, Benli analyzed the causes and unique features of climate-change related displacement, showing that climate change exacerbates existing social, economic and political factors leading to displacement. While displacement caused by climate change is slow and often purely internal within a certain country or region, it has potentially far-reaching consequences due to the high numbers of displaced persons and the lack of the possibility of return as a durable solution. Benli then critically discussed the different regulatory approaches to climate change induced displacement: the minimalist approach aiming at accommodating climate refugees within the current legal and institutional framework of international protection and the maximalist approach,  suggesting instead a new and independent global governance regime specifically for climate refugees, the “Climate Refugee Protocol” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This new framework would require not only international cooperation but also aim to more comprehensively address questions of responsibility at the global level.

In his presentation, Samuel Schmid shifted the focus from the consequences of climate change induced migration towards possible pathways to global sustainability. Arguing that ecology is humanity’s most basic genuine link and emphasizing our shared human responsibility for the earth’s resources, Schmid developed a novel concept of “Ecological Citizenship” and the “One Planet Principle”. As citizens of planet earth, he argues, we all have an ecological footprint – a footprint of resources we can use without damaging each other or the planet. In order to achieve a just distribution and a sustainable system, every citizen of planet earth has the right to one, but only one, full ecological footprint. The existing footprint inequality thereby harbors both risks and opportunities. It can imply granting migration rights to distribute footprints more equally, but it may also mean limiting migration rights to prevent an increase of footprints. As a concrete instrument to manage the footprint inequalities Schmid suggests a ‘footprint bank’ as a system to foster sustainable consumption and green energy production and, more generally, to achieve both social and ecological justice in the long haul.


Panel 2:          Interests and Coalitions

The second panel then focused on the question of climate change activism and the importance of bringing together diverse interests and coalitions in the global action against climate change. In a talk entitled “Heterogeneous Coalitions in Climate Change Activism” Farhan Samanani presented the findings of his anthropological research on climate change activism within Citizens UK, a community organizing group in the UK, and the London Climate Campaign. His research  explores how citizens can act together against climate change despite the incommensurability of the multiple understandings of what the terms “climate” and “climate change” mean, and what forms action against climate change need to be taken. Samanani’s research shows that the different actors personalize and pluralize the issue of climate change before successful climate change activism can occur. The recognition that climate change is everywhere changes the way climate change is defined and how it is addressed. Ultimately, the different perspectives on climate change can be interwoven despite the incommensurabilities that might continue to exist.


Panel 3:          Precarity and Climate Change

The third panel then zoomed in on the individual, micro level with the presentation by Nele Wolter on “Sliding into Climate Change? The (Micro)Politics of Precarity and Environmental Change in Cameroon”. In her ethnographic study, Wolter explored the consequences of a landslide in Ngouache Bafoussam, in Cameroon that devasted an irregular settlement and the impact this disaster has had on the local population and the politics of precarity under extreme weather conditions in a changing climate. Implicitly echoing what Benli already stressed in his presentation, Wolter’s research shows that the effects of climate change and displacement caused by climate change are closely tied to existing structures of precarity, inequality and politics. Irregular settlements, such as the one in Ngouache, are much more likely to be affected by climate change induced disaster and the question of reparation and resettlement reinforces existing marginalization. The importance of power, ethics and privilege as elements of environmental change thereby  bring to the fore the role and responsibility of researchers in the global fight against climate change.


Panel 4:          Pathways to Sustainability

The last panel turned to a discussion that focused on sustainability measures and activities within the Max Planck Society and at our own Max Planck Institute. Norbert Winnige and Sakura Yamamura discussed the current initiatives and developments within the framework of the Max Planck Sustainability Network. The Sustainability Working Group of the Max Planck Society works on four topics: 1. Energy, 2. Mobility, 3. Biodiversity and Food, and 4. Supply and Waste.

Workshop participants then discussed different measures to improve the sustainability of our institute, from green energy considerations in the planning of the new institute’s building to questions of sustainable academic travel and mobility, as well as the need to establish a formal local working group to represent the MMG MPI in the broader sustainability network of the MPS.

written by Barbara von Rütte, Mareike Riedel and Anna Frauke Stuhldreher

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