Date of Award

June 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Sarah B. Pralle


Autonomy, Climate change adaptation, Intergovernmental relations, Local bureaucrats, Polarization, Problem definition

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


In local communities across the United States, local government officials – specifically local bureaucrats – are faced with the realities of a changing climate which include severe storms, prolonged droughts, larger and more damaging floods, and more. Simultaneously, the issue of climate change is incredibly polarized in US politics with one side claiming it is not happening (or if it is happening it is not human caused) and the other framing the issue as the direst threat (or close to it) facing the planet.

This dissertation examines a empirical puzzle, asking whether and how local bureaucrats respond to the threat of climate change in their communities. I find that many, but not all, local bureaucrats are responding by developing climate adaptation plans and considering policies which might help their communities avoid the consequences of climate change. They are not acting alone, they work with support from the federal or state government, other bureaucrats, or multi-stakeholder organizations which allow them to access resources and gain political support when they would otherwise not have it. Climate change adaptation, like other emergency and disaster management policies, does not garner much attention from local politicians unless there currently is a disaster the community is responding to or recovering from that forces their attention.

Throughout this project, I examine how local bureaucrats step out of their conventional role as policy implementors to shape local agendas and formulate policy – policymaking roles often dominated by elected politicians, members of the media, and advocacy organizations. I argue that local bureaucrats occupy the perfect institutional role for shaping the development of climate adaptation in local governments. They have issue-specific knowledge, making them emergency management and climate adaptation experts (or at least the actors with the most expertise of this kind in local government). This often leads to elected officials deferring to bureaucrats when policies and plans need to be written, like emergency management plans, land use plans. When bureaucrats write these plans, they have the opportunity to incorporate climate adaptation provisions. Local bureaucrats also hold institutional knowledge in local governments. They are more likely to know state and federal policies and requirements, which may encourage climate adaptation (e.g. the Obama Administration’s efforts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to encourage local adaptation policy).

Local bureaucrats are also more motivated than elected officials to address climate change. I find that the bureaucrats in this study were aware of the political debates around climate change, but they often adopted a position which separated local adaptation efforts from the polarizing debate around what causes climate change (i.e. who or what is responsible for the problem). This enabled them to address their communities’ needs to adapt without drawing opposition from conservative members of their communities who do not think climate change is happening or caused by human activities.

I also address the intergovernmental environment local bureaucrats respond to: specifically, their relationship with their state governments and the federal government. Even though states and the federal government wield significant influence over local governments – mostly through the control of resources – local bureaucrats do not avoid climate adaptation solely because the state government disapproves. A few cases demonstrate that state governments’ and FEMA’s encouragement to address climate adaptation impacted local bureaucrats’ decisions to create adaptation policies. However, it was not the only or the most important influence in local bureaucrats’ decision-making.

In sum, this project demonstrates that local bureaucrats are important actors in the development of local climate adaptation policy. Local bureaucrats’ efforts alone are not enough to adapt to climate change, but they are an important first step when politicians cannot or will not act. While only climate adaptation policy was studied in this project, these findings speak to the important role bureaucrats play in creating policy when elected officials do not – either because the issues have low saliences, are highly technical, or are politically polarized.


Open Access