DURHAM, N.C. – Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has been named a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, the Carnegie Corporation of New York announced today.

She is one of 27 scholars selected from more than 300 nominations this year for the prestigious fellowship, which includes a $200,000 award to each fellow to support new research.

Mullin is a political scientist widely cited for her scholarship on environmental attitudes and governance. She will use her fellowship to conduct a two-year research project, “Reshaping Communities: Local Political Responses to Climate Risks.”

“The nation’s local governments are on the front line in responding to the climate crisis. With rising threats from drought, wildfire, coastal flooding, and other hazards, the test for many local governments is how to reconfigure their communities in order to protect the lives and property of their residents,” she said.

Research on climate adaptation has focused on developing strategies that can help reduce harm from climate change impacts, she noted. Less attention has been paid to understanding the political, social and economic factors driving local decisions to adopt these strategies and the outcomes these actions may have, both good and bad.

One particularly undesirable outcome, Mullin said, is that as communities attempt to become more resilient, the actions they take may reinforce racial and economic inequalities caused by past policies that have protected the interests of wealthy, white property owners.

“Local policies intended to manage environmental risk – septic regulations, wetlands protection, water supply review requirements – often get used as instruments for blocking access to desirable neighborhoods. Large-scale property buyouts and limits on new development may reinforce racial exclusion. Public investments in defensive infrastructure such as beach nourishment can exacerbate inequality if these projects mostly protect higher-value properties,” she said.

“Is there another path forward?” she asked. “My Carnegie Fellow research will culminate in a book that considers whether a new emphasis on physical protection in local governance could help reshape communities to be not just more resilient, but also more equitable.”

To do that, Mullin will use government data on policy enactments, media coverage, surveys, and qualitative case studies to identify the political drivers of local decisions on adaptation and property buyouts, and the effects of these decisions on community composition. While pursuing this project, she will also continue working with a multidisciplinary team studying the interactions between human activities and natural processes in a set of North Carolina coastal communities confronting challenges from storms and sea-level rise.

“Climate change is on all of our doorsteps, but some people are at greater risk because of a legacy of local government decision making. We have a small window of opportunity to confront this challenge in ways that could reduce harm for everyone,” Mullin said. “I am very grateful to the Carnegie Corporation for investing in this work.”