Why Local Governments Matter

Adapting to a Changing Climate in Chile

By Krister Andersson and Patricio Valdivieso

Location of Cauquenes, Lebu and Panguipulli. MAP SOURCE: VALDIVIESO AND ANDERSSON (2017)


When confronted with the need to address climate change, we environ-mentalists often set our hopes on global environmental agreements with strong enforcement capabilities. We look toward the implementation of international treaties such as the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. It is a natural reaction: climate change is a global problem and hence we need a strong and coordinated global response. 

This is true, especially if we limit our discussion to mitigation activities—that is, interventions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, once we broaden the discussion to include climate change adaptation—the actions we can take to cope with a climate that is already changing—the importance of local political action becomes more apparent. This is because local governments are responsible for much of the public infrastructure that we will need to survive in a world with more frequent and more severe extreme events such as floods, droughts, storms and wildfires.

In many ways, our future quality of life depends on how our local governments are able to plan and invest in infrastructure improvements. Local governments can help save lives during extreme events by anticipating the impacts of these events and investing in prevention measures such as building flood-proof bridges, retaining walls along mountain roads, more efficient irrigation systems, enhanced water recycling capacity, better emergency-response systems and public subsidies to citizens to weather-proof their homes.  

Scientists predict that extreme weather events and natural disasters will become more frequent and more serious as a result of global warming. Latin American and Caribbean societies are particularly vulnerable to these events. An enormous amount of damage has already interrupted normal life and inflicted huge economic losses on the region.  For example, in 2008, a severe drought in central and southern Chile caused emergencies in fifty municipalities, and the national government spent about US$30.5 million just on trucking animal feed and drinking water to affected communities. In 2015, the floods in northern Chile caused an estimated US$1.5 billion in reported damages to about 8,000 homes and local infrastructure. And most recently, the massive wildfires in 2017 destroyed nearly 1,500 homes and 250,000 acres of forest, costing the government about US$330 million. 

Most national governments in Latin America and the Caribbean recognize the need to strengthen local governments to prepare for such events, but progress has been slow. In our research, we have documented what local governments are currently doing in response to the threat of extreme events. We have conducted a large number of interviews in some 170 local governments in both the United States and Chile. What is quite clear from these interviews is that an enormous amount of variation exists in what local governments are doing to respond to the threat of extreme events.  Most of our research is about figuring out why some local governments more than others decide to invest their scarce public resources in infrastructure improvements. In this short essay, we share some of our most surprising results.

discussion group 2
Discussion Group with social leaders of the communes of Chiloe (Region X Los Lagos. Participants include Pedro Bahamonde (left; Governor of Chiloé during the environmental crisis of the Red Tide, 2016, and currently a member of the council of national monuments ); and Felipe Montiel, renowned historian of Chiloé and director of the Castro Museum (right). Photo courtesy of Krister Andersson.


First, and perhaps most surprisingly, we have found little evidence in support of commonly held notions about what makes some local governments perform better than others. Conventional wisdom suggests that local governments that are richer and have highly trained technical personnel are the high performers, but our evidence suggests otherwise. 

Through the systematic analysis of observations made in hundreds of interviews with local leaders, and by using computer simulations, we’ve found quite unexpected findings on more than one occasion.  



Documenting cases of vulnerable Chilean municipalities at risk during the period 2009-2014, we’ve observed that local governments with similar levels of financial resources and exposure to climate-related risk differ a great deal in their efforts to improve critical infrastructures and maintenance. Our comparative analysis of three municipalities—the agriculture and viticulture municipality of Cauquenes, the fishing and mining municipality of Lebu, and the forestry and tourism municipality of Panguipulli (see map)—showed that  Panguipulli stands out for its superior performance in taking action to adapt to extreme climate-related events although all three have very similar levels of financial resources for their municipal administrations. 

Our statistical analyses of all Chilean municipalities confirm this lack of relationship, as we find no evidence in support of a correlation between a municipal administration’s wealth and its performance in adaptation activities. While more money does not always mean better performance, it is important to recognize that all municipalities do need basic financial stability to be able to make the necessary infrastructure improvements. 



Since 2000, Chilean local governments have modernized their municipal structures following guidelines from national legislation and decentralization policies. This has included introducing new internal regulations, managerial procedures, offices of environment and disaster risk reduction, civil protection plans, environmental ordinances, as well as hiring more personnel and providing more training opportunities. 

However, these changes in local government structures, procedures, and technical know-how have not uniformly produced better performance when it comes to investing more in critical infrastructure. For example, the local government of Lebu has effectively introduced new managerial procedures with training given to their personnel. However, Lebu continues to struggle to reduce its vulnerability to extreme events and remains one of the coastal municipalities least prepared to confront such events. During the period 2009-2014, Lebu hardly invested in infrastructure and maintenance with its own resources. Our statistical analysis finds that variables that seek to measure the technical capacity of a local government, such as the education of the mayor and the number of personnel per capita, are not correlated to adaptation performance among local governments in Chile.  It appears that if local governments are to be successful, they do need some basic technical and administrative capacity, but there are other factors that are more important in producing high-performing local governments.  

These findings beg the question: If these factors don’t explain much of the variation, what does?

research results
Research results on risk factors presented in the municipality San Juan de la Costa (Region X Los Lagos). Photo courtesy of Krister Andersson.



Through our research, we have come to appreciate the importance of looking beyond single-factor explanations such as money or technical capacity.  The reality on the ground is complex: local governments are constrained by central government mandates and rules, and often struggle to respond even to the most pressing problems, not to mention long-term challenges such as preparing to adapt to climate-related events. 

To make sense of this complexity it helps to consider a combination of factors to explain why some local governments perform better than others. A step in this direction is our efforts to study local institutional networks—how local governance actors connect and relate to one another on particular issues. For example, by measuring the multiple ways that local governance actors decide to connect to other actors on issues related to the adaptation to extreme events in Chile, our analysis has shown that the density of these networks is systematically linked to local government performance in adaptation activities. 

The importance of local institutional networks is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Panguipuilli, where the local government has cultivated strong relationships with actors operating at a variety of governance scales (e.g., local, regional, national and international) and these relationships are characterized by high levels of trust and reciprocity. These well-functioning relationships facilitated the access to new knowledge, resources and technical support, which were essential to identify, plan, and implement infrastructure improvements (which are an integral part of adaptation work).  And even though Panguipuilli isn’t richer, doesn’t have more and better trained personnel and doesn’t operate under special rules, these networks are much more developed than in other municipalities such as Cauquenes and Lebu. 

By comparison, Cauquenes’ govern-ance network was much smaller, covering fewer issues, and it emphasized external relationships with the public sector at regional and national scales. Lebu presented a similar network, with a majority of non-reciprocal linkages; Lebu’s network also showed a preponderance of public-sector institutions. Panguipulli had the most diverse and largest (and highest-intensity) network, characterized by reciprocal relationships among a diversity of governance actors, including public, private and civil society members. 


In order for the local institutional networks to develop and eventually flourish, we have found that it helps if there is a local political champion—or group of individuals—who lead by example and take the initiative to identify, invite, convoke and connect with others who have compatible (but not always identical) objectives and worldviews.  Again, the political leadership in Panhuipuilli provides a case in point. Mayor Alejandro Kohler is a political entrepreneur, trained as a journalist, with a strong supportive network—he enjoys strong electoral support and a supportive municipal council. With experience in a successful tourism-related microenterprise and his vision that sustainable tourism can open new horizons for the people of Panguipulli, the mayor (who served in 2000–2008) led a process to create a local political consensus to invest in critical infrastructure, tourism and sustainable development. This vision was consistent with a combination of international cooperation agreements, legislative reforms and provisions of budget laws to strengthen the multi-sectorial approach for infrastructure investments in vulnerable municipalities such as Panguipuilli (which is relatively rural and remote).

At the municipal level, Mayor Kohler began the institutional change by reforming the internal structure and operational rules of the local government: he obtained council approval of new regulations and ordinances (2004, 2005) and created the Department of Territorial Planning and Environment within the planning office. He introduced more computerized administrative routines, recruited thirty young professionals, strengthened coordination among departments and created more external links for municipal planning. The local government made alliances and collaborative agreements with diverse individuals and organizations in the private, civic and governmental worlds. 

Institutional change introduced during Mayor Kohler’s term set the stage for new and more inclusive working routines on how to address adap-tation challenges, including support to municipal study commissions. Municipal staff was invited to share its expertise during council meetings; the commissions actively explored new agreements and cooperation with outside organizations. Academics, business owners and citizens at large were all invited to report on physical and environmental conditions; the municipality held open hearings to discuss the mayor’s and council’s proposals. 

This experience suggest that individual or collective leadership may increase the likelihood of local government engagement in risk reduction in places where municipal institutional contexts have high levels of support (internal and external).  Leadership may have a key role in initiating institutional change, but leaders can be held back by lack of support, institutional inertia, organizational cultures and political factors. They need trusting relationships and supportive networks. 



Our research has shown us that political action is rarely driven by a single factor or event. Many factors interact or act in combination to produce an enabling environment for action in the face of weather- and climate-related risk. One of the approaches we have found particularly useful to communicate this insight is computer simulations. These tools allow us to model which combination of local conditions among Chilean municipalities would increase their investments in the adaptation of critical infrastructure. What these simulations show is that when a local government enjoys a combination of favorable local conditions—a well-developed local institutional network that spans across multiple governance levels, strong internal administrative efficiency and high levels of civic engagement in the municipality—then the likelihood of making these investments increases dramatically (more than forty percent increase compared to unfavorable local conditions). 

The bad news is that among Chile’s 346 municipal governments, only a very few enjoy these favorable conditions. The good news is that there are ways through which external actors may contribute to a more propitious institutional climate—by supporting local leaders and facilitating their efforts to develop local governance networks related to adaptation—which may ultimately improve the adaptive capacities of local governance actors.

Krister Andersson is a professor of Political Science at University of Colorado at Boulder. He acknowledges financial support for his field research from the National Science Foundation (grants SMA-1328688 and BCS-1115009). Contact: krister@colorado.edu

Patricio Valdivieso is Professor of Political Science of the Center for Regional Development Studies and Public Policy at Universidad de los Lagos, Chile. He  acknowledges financial support from the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development, FONDECYT, (Grants  1140672 and 1181282) as well as  from the Institute for Research in Market Imperfections and Public Policy (ICM IS130002); Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism. Contact: patricio.valdivieso@ulagos.cl

The research presented in this article is based, in good part, on Valdivieso, P. and Andersson, K. 2017. Local Politics of Environmental Disaster Risk Management: Institutional Analysis and Lessons from Chile. Journal of Environment and Development 26(1): 51 – 81 and Valdivieso, P.E., Andersson, K.P., Villena-Roldan, B. 2017. Institutional Drivers of Adaptation in Local Government Decision Making: Evidence from Chile. Climatic Change 143(1):157–17.


This article includes research results previously published in:


Dilling, L., Pizzi, E., Berggren, J., Ravikumar, A. Andersson, K. 2017. Drivers of adaptation: Responses to weather- and climate-related hazards in 60 local governments in the intermountain Western U.S. Environment and Planning A 2017 49(11): 2628–2648;


Matson, P., Clark, W., and Andersson, K. 2016. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press;


Valdivieso, P. 2016. Municipal Governance, Environmental Management and Disaster Risk Reduction in Chile. Bulletin of Latin American Research. First published: 15 December 2016;


Valdivieso, P. and Andersson, K. 2017. Local Politics of Environmental Disaster Risk Management: Institutional Analysis and Lessons from Chile. Journal of Environment and Development 26(1): 51 – 81;


Valdivieso, P.E., Andersson, K.P., Villena-Roldan, B. 2017. Institutional Drivers of Adaptation in Local Government Decision Making: Evidence from Chile. Climactic Change 143(1):157–171.