Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Marine Affairs

Department

Marine Affairs

First Advisor

Robert Thompson

Abstract

The consequences of global climate change in the form of sea level rise and more frequent intense storms are likely to cause significant impacts on coastal ecosystems and critical infrastructure in vulnerable coastal municipalities. This could result in major economic losses and social disruption unless these communities proactively plan for the impacts of a changing climate. As a small state with a large coastal population, Rhode Island is highly vulnerable to impacts from climate change, thus the state is positioned to act as a potential leader in a national movement towards proactive adaptation. It is clear that actions must be taken, however implementing effective policy changes requires significant political will as well as the support of decision makers and communities.

This case study assesses municipal officials’ perceptions of the risks sea level rise and increased storminess pose to North Kingstown, Rhode Island and analyzes the relationship between town decision makers’ understanding of climate change risk and adaptive planning behavior. Evaluation of local decision makers’ mental models concerning climate change knowledge and perceptions of risk will provide insights for those working with town decision makers to proactively incorporate adaptation actions in town comprehensive and capital improvement planning.

Results of this research display no correlation between local decision makers’ levels of climate change knowledge and their individual preparatory behavior or between personal adaptive behavior and levels of support for proactive municipal adaptation. A strong correlation was found between individuals with mental models closely matching the expert model of climate change knowledge and levels of support for municipal adaptation planning and actions. Additionally, this study found a moderate correlation between subjects’ exposure to climate change information and levels of support for municipal adaptation. Increasing awareness of the risks associated with impacts of climate change through improved communication, educational programs, and public outreach is likely to be an effective way of promoting proactive adaptation in vulnerable coastal communities.

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