Greater Trust Increases Community-Level Adaptations to Climate Change

February 16, 2016

Tim Lucas, (919) 613-8084,

Note: Chris Paul is available for additional comment at Erika Weinthal is available at (919) 613-8080 or

By Kati Moore, MEM ’16
Nicholas School Communications Student Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. -- In rural Ethiopian communities threatened by climate change, communities with high levels of trust between members are more likely to work together to adapt to changes, and are less likely to take individual action, a new study finds.

Nicholas School Ph.D. student Chris Paul and his adviser Erika Weinthal, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Environmental Policy, conducted a three-year study of rural communities in the Ethiopian Rift Valley to study the role of social capital in the ways that people adapt to climate change.

“This study generates broad lessons for understanding modes of climate change adaptation and forms of resilience,” says Weinthal.

The study was published online last month in Global Environmental Change.  

The Ethiopian Rift Valley is a sparsely populated, semi-arid region in southwestern Ethiopia. Most communities rely on subsistence farming, and income levels are well below the national average. The communities are very rural and fairly isolated from external resources. This combination of environmental and economic factors makes them particularly vulnerable and unable to adapt to current climate change effects such as changing rainfall patterns and increasingly variable temperatures.

Because of limited financial and environmental resources, the level of social capital, or the degree to which community members can work together and share resources, is increasingly important.

“This paper is part of a larger investigation into how households adapt to environmental stressors in the Rift Valley,” says Paul. “We were initially interested in water quality, and then we realized it’s a much bigger picture about the questions of livelihood and subsistence in the Rift Valley, and climate change plays a big role.”

In the study, Paul and his colleagues worked with Ethiopian researchers to survey 400 households and interview community representatives across 20 villages. They measured levels of trust between individuals using a survey and a money-lending experiment where participants lent and returned varying amounts of money to anonymous partners. They conducted a separate lottery experiment to measure individuals’ willingness to take risks, to determine if the participants’ behavior in the first game reflected their levels of trust or their risk preferences. The researchers then compared these results with the degree to which individuals take part in community-level versus household-level adaptations to climate change.

Household-level adaptations mainly involved modifications to farming practices, such as changing the timing of planting and harvest, diversifying crops, altering the number of livestock or crops, and using newer technology.

Community-level adaptations included landscape improvements such as terracing to reduce flooding or improve infiltration, planting trees, building roads, or building ponds to collect rainwater and runoff.

The study found that communities with higher levels of trust between members were more likely to engage in community-level adaptations, and less likely to engage in household-level adaptations.

“These findings are consistent with the ideas of social capital,” says Paul. “It’s important because community-level activity and collective action are important sources of adaptations, but so are household-level adaptations.”

Mark Jeuland, assistant professor of Public Policy and Global Health in the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Marc Bellemare, associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, co-authored the new study which is part of a broader, interdisciplinary project looking at environmental health, climate change, and water management in Ethiopia.

Funding for the study was provided by the Duke Office of the Provost and the United States Agency for International Development.

Other Duke collaborators on the broader project include Wenhong Li, assistant professor of climate, Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, Peter McCornick, senior fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Courtney Harrison, former water resource policy associate at the Nicholas Institute, Julia Kravchenko, research scientist at the Duke Cancer Institute, and Tewodros Rango Godebo, postdoctoral researcher in Vengosh’s lab. Learn more here.

The ultimate goal of the research, says Weinthal, is to engage with the policymaking community to inform decision making. “We’ve been very conscious of trying to make sure our results are policy relevant,” she says. “There are clear lessons that could be generated from this research about how to target climate change policy in a way that would be more effective in helping individuals and households cope with climate change impacts in the water sector and agricultural sector in Ethiopia, and at the end of the day build resilience.”


CITATION: “Social capital, trust, and adaptation to climate change: Evidence from rural Ethiopia.” Christopher J. Paul, Erika S. Weinthal, Marc F. Bellemare, Marc A. Jeuland. Jan. 11, 2016, Global Environmental Change. DOI: