Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



Major Professor

Carol P. Harden

Committee Members

Micheline van Riemsdijk, Gregory V. Button, Bruce Tonn


This research was undertaken to understand the role institutional actors play in shaping the social process of adaptation to climate change. Through a case study of coastal adaption in Hampton Roads, Virginia, I investigated the socio-political landscape in which institutional adaptation activities (e.g. planning, and formal and informal decision-making) are occurring. Using a qualitative methodological approach, data were gathered from semi-structured interviews with key actors, direct observation at regional Adaptation Forums, and content analyses of local and federal level adaptation planning documents. In this research, I examine the case of adaptation in Hampton Roads through a political ecology lens and identify three ways in which institutional approaches to adaptation may hinder adaptive capacity of at-risk and vulnerable population segments. First, politically charged climate change and adaptation discourse in Hampton Roads limits the scope of adaption planning to address the social and some of the biophysical determinants of place-based vulnerability to climate change. Second, processes of inclusion and exclusion have resulted in the exclusion of critical stakeholders (general public, including the at-risk populations, certain business sectors, and elected officials) from regional adaptation discussions. Lastly, funding for adaptation projects in Hampton Roads is overwhelmingly allocated to large-scale development projects that prioritize protecting the economic centers and high value properties over the most socially vulnerable and at-risk properties. Despite the efforts of current institutional actors to adapt municipalities to the increasing intensity and frequency of regional flooding, all three of these identified facets contribute to undermining the ability of institutions to alleviate vulnerability and risk within the most vulnerable segments of the population. The findings of this research raise broader concerns regarding the current state of institutional adaptation practices within the United States.

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