Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science & Geography


Graduate Program in International Studies

Committee Director

Regina Karp

Committee Member

David Earnest

Committee Member

Hans-Peter Plag

Committee Member

Steve Yetiv


Sea-level rise (SLR) is a manifestation of climate change that is particularly hazardous to port cities that must remain on the waterfront to function, yet are increasingly battered and flooded by encroaching storms, and sinking into the rising saltwater. Despite sharing a common high level of risk, port cities are choosing antithetical adaptation strategies that range from hard-engineered structural flood protection, to behavioral modifications, to innovative soft-engineered measures, to doing nothing at all. Why is this? Are transnational city networks, such as C40 Cities, a lifeline to drowning cities? Do differences in governance structure, financial capacity, risk tolerance to the hazard, or the influence of special interest groups matter?

These factors and the interplay of civil, public, and corporate actors in the context of changing environmental conditions are examined in this cross-disciplinary qualitative study to understand their effects on adaptation decision-making processes over time. Four at-risk global port cities—Venice, Rotterdam, Guangzhou, and Miami—were selected for comparison based on their antithetical adaptation strategies of retreating, climate proofing, innovating, and denying.

The Panarchy model of nested four-stage adaptive renewal cycles frames the ongoing and cross-scalar interaction of stakeholders and special interest groups at the city, national, transnational, and international levels. This methodology enables the identification of patterns, power distributions, and path dependencies that contribute to appropriate or maladaptive adaptation.

As is characteristic of complex adaptive systems, this study finds that decisions cannot be correlated with a single factor. For those cities that display key characteristics of resilience, SLR is a catalyst for proactive and appropriate adaptation. For others, socio-economic and socio-political factors trump environmental factors in deciding whether, when, and how a city decreased its risk to SLR hazard.


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