Theses Doctoral

Social Ties and Climate Politics

Zucker, Noah

Climate change is an issue rife with economic risk. The physical impacts of global warming, allowed to intensify by halting international climate cooperation, threaten climate-vulnerable industries and communities. Global transitions away from fossil fuels endanger carbon-intensive economic assets. Whereas climate change is often framed as an issue of global collective action and public goods provision, I instead conceptualize it as one of economic risk and decline. How do workers, voters, and governments perceive and manage mounting "climate risks"? How do they cope with losses stemming from realizations of such risks?

I interrogate these questions in reference to the political and economic divisions that exist within and across many of the world's most fossil fuel-intensive and ecologically vulnerable countries. The first two papers of the dissertation consider how ethnoracial divisions within states shape perceptions of climate risks and responses to their realization. In the first, I argue that the ascriptive makeup of an industry serves as a heuristic for evaluating its access to state subsidies and ability to weather climate change and decarbonization. Survey experiments on representative U.S. samples indicate that minority Americans see greater downside risk in industries that hire large numbers of Black workers, expecting those industries to be denied government support as climate risks manifest. Conversely, minorities see less risk in industries that mainly employ white workers, believing those industries to have more benefactors in government.

In the second paper, I study how migrants, who have long featured prominently in fossil fuel workforces, politically assimilate amid industrial booms and busts. Whereas scholars often contend that industrial decay aggravates ethnocultural animosities and compounds existing group loyalties, I argue that the starkest intergroup divides can emerge in periods of growth, not decline. When an industry is growing, economic optimism and resources flow across ethnic groups concentrated in that industry, bolstering migrants’ confidence in the ability of coethnics to safeguard their welfare and suppressing investments in political assimilation. Gains from concentration in the industry dissipate amid decline, leading migrants to forge ties with outside groups promising access to political rents previously out of reach. I find support for this theory in the case of the early twentieth century U.S. coal industry.

The third paper of the dissertation, coauthored with Richard Clark, explores why some international organizations have retrofit themselves to address climate change despite the intransigence of powerful member states on the issue. We link these pro-climate turns to bureaucrats' socialization in climate-vulnerable countries. As bureaucrats rotate between countries and are promoted, climate concerns then diffuse outwards and upwards, gradually sharpening the climate focus of the institution despite the skepticism of powerful principal states. We find support for this argument in the case of the International Monetary Fund, drawing on original data on bureaucrat career paths and Fund attention to climate change.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2027-04-13.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Carnegie, Allison Jean
Gaikwad, Nikhar
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2022