Migration Theory in Climate Mobility Research

Alex de Sherbinin, Kathryn Grace, Sonali McDermid, Kees van der Geest, Michael J. Puma, Andrew Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The purpose of this article is to explore how migration theory is invoked in empirical studies of climate-related migration, and to provide suggestions for engagement with theory in the emerging field of climate mobility. Theory is critical for understanding processes we observe in social-ecological systems because it points to a specific locus of attention for research, shapes research questions, guides quantitative model development, influences what researchers find, and ultimately informs policies and programs. Research into climate mobility has grown out of early studies on environmental migration, and has often developed in isolation from broader theoretical developments in the migration research community. As such, there is a risk that the work may be inadequately informed by the rich corpus of theory that has contributed to our understanding of who migrates; why they migrate; the types of mobility they employ; what sustains migration streams; and why they choose certain destinations over others. On the other hand, there are ways in which climate and broader environment migration research is enriching the conceptual frameworks being employed to understand migration, particularly forced migration. This paper draws on a review of 75 empirical studies and modeling efforts conducted by researchers from a diversity of disciplines, covering various regions, and using a variety of data sources and methods to assess how they used theory in their research. The goal is to suggest ways forward for engagement with migration theory in this large and growing research domain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number882343
JournalFrontiers in Climate
StatePublished - May 10 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors acknowledge intellectual contributions to transdisciplinary discussions and reading groups on climate mobility from colleagues on the NSF Global Convergence Research (GCR) project, including Richard Seager (PI), Wolfram Schlenker, and Fabien Cottier, as well as participants in the workshop, Workshop on Disentangling the Drivers of Migration in West Africa at Columbia University in February 2020. They also appreciate assistance with graphics development from Kaitlyn Bretz of the Columbia Climate & Society program.

Funding Information:
AS, SM, MP, and AB would like to acknowledge funding from the NSF Global Convergence Research (GCR) project Collaborative Research: Disentangling Environmental Change and Social Factors as Drivers of Migration (NSF OIA Award 1934978; 1934955), and KGr would like to acknowledge funding from the NSF INFEWS research project Understanding multi-scale resilience options for vulnerable regions (NSF Award 1639214). MP acknowledges support from the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory under the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (Grant no. W911NF1810267).

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 de Sherbinin, Grace, McDermid, van der Geest, Puma and Bell.


  • aspirations and capabilities
  • climate adaptation
  • climate change
  • climate migration
  • climate mobility
  • human mobility
  • migration research
  • migration theory


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