The Political Economy of Climate Adaptation and Environmental Health: The Case of Ethiopia

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Paul, Christopher John


Weinthal, Erika S

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The environment affects our health, livelihoods, and the social and political institutions within which we interact. Indeed, nearly a quarter of the global disease burden is attributed to environmental factors, and many of these factors are exacerbated by global climate change. Thus, the central research question of this dissertation is: How do people cope with and adapt to uncertainty, complexity, and change of environmental and health conditions? Specifically, I ask how institutional factors, risk aversion, and behaviors affect environmental health outcomes. I further assess the role of social capital in climate adaptation, and specifically compare individual and collective adaptation. I then analyze how policy develops accounting for both adaptation to the effects of climate and mitigation of climate-changing emissions. In order to empirically test the relationships between these variables at multiple levels, I combine multiple methods, including semi-structured interviews, surveys, and field experiments, along with health and water quality data. This dissertation uses the case of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, which has a large rural population and is considered very vulnerable to climate change. My fieldwork included interviews and institutional data collection at the national level, and a three-year study (2012-2014) of approximately 400 households in 20 villages in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. I evaluate the theoretical relationships between households, communities, and government in the process of adaptation to environmental stresses. Through my analyses, I demonstrate that water source choice varies by individual risk aversion and institutional context, which ultimately has implications for environmental health outcomes. I show that qualitative measures of trust predict cooperation in adaptation, consistent with social capital theory, but that measures of trust are negatively related with private adaptation by the individual. Finally, I describe how Ethiopia had some unique characteristics, significantly reinforced by international actors, that led to the development of an extensive climate policy, and yet with some challenges remaining for implementation. These results suggest a potential for adaptation through the interactions among individuals, communities, and government in the search for transformative processes when confronting environmental threats and climate change.





Paul, Christopher John (2016). The Political Economy of Climate Adaptation and Environmental Health: The Case of Ethiopia. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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