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Leigh Johnson

Associate Professor
Environmental Studies, Geography
Phone: 541-346-2644
Office: 152 Condon Hall
Office Hours: On Sabbatical 2023-2024
Research Interests: Climate change and environmental risk, political ecology, finance, development studies, East Africa, labor, firefighting


B.A. Columbia University, 2003; Ph.D. UC Berkeley, 2011


On Sabbatical at the University of Zurich, Switzerland for Academic Year 2023-2024

I am a human geographer focusing on the intersection of disaster and climate risk, vulnerability, finance, and labor. I investigate how different configurations of public and private sector actors and financing arrangements influence livelihoods, vulnerability, and wellbeing.

My work spans multiple regions (Africa, North America, and Europe) and scales. A longstanding focus is catastrophe and weather insurance. My work documents why and how insurance and other risk transfer tools have become solutions of choice, and with what impacts for climate governance, justice, livelihoods, and landscapes. This includes a hallmark drought insurance program for livestock in Northern Kenya, a continental-scale sovereign insurance pool for humanitarian drought relief in sub-Saharan Africa, and growing catastrophe bond markets for natural disaster risks around the globe. 

A second element of my research program focuses on climate change "adaptation labor": the (often under/unpaid and undervalued) work of modifying and repairing socioecological systems to bear the brunt of climatic changes.  I am interested in how this labor is organized, valued, distributed, and governed across global development institutions and NGO actors. A related project centers on understanding the growth and labor sourcing dynamics of crowdfunding platforms for ecological restoration.

A third focus is on carceral forest firefighting labor in the U.S. West, exploring how Western states are mobilizing incarcerated labor for fire suppression amidst unprecedented fire regimes and labor shortages.

Prior to joining the Geography Department in 2016, I was a lecturer in Economic Geography at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Prospective Students: I am interested in working with graduate students studying environmental risk, disaster, development, and finance. If you are interested in working with me, please be in touch with your CV and a paragraph outlining your future research interests.



Johnson, L., M. Mikulewicz, P. Bigger, R. Chakraborty, A. Cunniff, P. J. Griffin, V. Guermond, N. Lambrou, M. Mills-Novoa, B. Neimark, S. Nelson, C. Rampini, P. Sherpa, & G. Simon. 2023. “The invisible labor of climate change adaptation”, Global Environmental Change 83: 102769, doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102769

Johnson, L., T. S. Mohamed, I. Scoones, M. Taye. 2023  “Uncertainty in the drylands: Reimagining in/formal insurance from pastoral East Africa”, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space doi: 10.1177/0308518X231168396

Johnson, L. 2022 "Rents, Experiments, and the Perpetual Presence of Concessionary Weather InsuranceAnnals of the Association of American Geographers  112(5): 1224-1242

Johnson, L. 2021 "Paying ex gratia: Parametric insurance after calculative devices failGeoforum 125: 120-131

Johnson, L. 2021 "Rescaling index insurance for climate and developmentEconomy and Society 50(2): 248-274

Johnson, L. 2020. “Sharing Risks or Proliferating Uncertainties? Insurance, Disaster and Development”, in Ian Scoones and Andy Stirling (eds), The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation. London: Earthscan/Routledge. 

Erikson, S. and L. Johnson. 2020 "Will financial innovation transform pandemic response?" The Lancet Infectious Diseases, (20)5 529-530 

Christophers, B., P. Bigger, and L. Johnson. 2020  “Stretching scales? Risk and sociality in climate financeEnvironment and Planning A: Economy and Space. 52(1): 88-110

Johnson, L., B. Wandera, N. Jensen, and R. Banerjee. 2019 "Competing expectations in an index-based livestock insurance project", Journal of Development Studies 55(6): 1221-1239

Ouma, S., L. Johnson, P. Bigger. 2018 “Rethinking the financialization of nature”, Environment and Planning A. (50) 500-511

Müller, B., L. Johnson, and D. Kreuer. 2017 "Maladaptive outcomes of climate insurance in agriculture", Global Environmental Change 46: 23-33

Johnson, L. and C. Rampini. 2017. “Are climate models global public goods?”, in D. Tyfield, R. Lave, S. Randalls, and C. Thorpe (eds), Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of Science. London: Routledge.

Johnson, L. 2015 “Catastrophic fixes? Cyclical devaluation and accumulation through climate change impacts”, Environment and Planning A (47) 2503-2521

Johnson, L. 2015 “Near futures and perfect hedges in the Gulf of Mexico”, in M. Watts, A. Mason and H. Appel (eds), Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Johnson, L. 2014 “Geographies of securitized catastrophe risk and the implications of climate change”, Economic Geography (90) 155-185

Lave, R., M. Wilson, E. Barron, C. Biermann, M. Carey, M. Doyle, C. Duvall, L. Johnson, M. Lane, J. Lorimer, N. McClintock, D. Munroe, R. Pain, J. Proctor, B. Rhoads, M. Robertson, J. Rossi, N. Sayre, G. Simon, M. Tadaki, and C. Van Dyke. 2014 "Intervention: Critical Physical Geography", The Canadian Geographer (58) 1-10

Johnson, L. 2013 “Index insurance and the articulation of risk-bearing subjects”, Environment and Planning A (45) 2663-2681

Johnson, L. 2013 “Catastrophe bonds and financial risk: Securing capital and rule through contingency”, Geoforum (45) 30-40

Johnson, L. 2010 “The fearful symmetry of Arctic climate change: Accumulation by degradation”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28 (5) 828-847

Johnson, L. 2010 “Climate change and the risk industry: The multiplication of fear and value” In R. Peet, P. Robbins & M. Watts (eds), Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.


Banerjee, R., L. Johnson, A. Mude. 2022 “Eliciting pastoralist experience for a livestock asset protection program in arid and semi-arid lands” ILRI Research Brief 113. Nairobi: International Livestock Research Institute.

Müller, B., L. Johnson, D. Kreuer. 2017 “Risks of maladaptation: Climate insurance in agriculture” Briefing Paper 22/2017. Bonn: German Development Institute/ Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik

Mburu, S., L. Johnson, A. Mude. 2015 “Integrating index-based livestock insurance with community savings and loan groups in northern Kenya” ILRI Research Brief 60. Nairobi: International Livestock Research Institute