Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Pratt, Tyler


This project explores the new actors, issues, and dynamics that are reshaping the land-scape and context in which states will have to advance their interests in the 21st century. Examining the case study of private sector climate action, it demonstrates that select transnational actors have not just the capacity to alter relationships between govern-ments, as scholars like Nye and Keohane anticipated in the 1970s, but the ability and, increasingly, the ambition to address non-traditional issues that states cannot address independently. Focusing on 34 of the world’s largest companies, representing four in-dustry groups (energy-intensive, automotive, technology, and finance) and three main headquarter countries (Germany, India, and the United States), this project investi-gates and analyzes the process by which private sector actors coalesced into a new pat-tern of response to climate change during the 2010–2017 timeframe and became key, even leading, actors in the issue area. It considers what the phenomenon of private sec-tor climate action implies about changes in global order, including in the actors that are shaping a landscape defined increasingly by non-traditional issues—and, in certain cases, by states’ abdication of leadership and action in the face of these complex new challenges. I make three main arguments in this study. First, I argue that private sector actors coalesced around a set of climate-relevant actions as the new “dominant de-sign,” or paradigm for long-term success in a changing environment. Second, in con-trast to the intuitive explanation, which is that during the 2010s changes in their politi-cal and consumer contexts led companies to perceive more serious climate-related risks and/or opportunities, I argue that individual companies did not perceive increas-ingly strong material incentives to alter their approach vis-à-vis climate change—and it was in this context that they coalesced into a new pattern of response to the issue. The pattern was emergent, or a second-order outcome that would not have been anticipat-ed on the basis of how individual actors perceived the climate issue. Third, I propose that the condition accounting for why companies coalesced in an emergent fashion into a new pattern of behavior was their declining confidence in states’ willingness to play their expected role vis-à-vis a critical issue poised to shape future global trends. As I show, from 2010 through 2017, as companies adopted cli-mate practices and became more deeply invested in them, and as select actors altered their approaches decisively and adopted “climate active” sensibilities, companies’ out-look for bold state action (in the form of high-impact climate-related regulation) de-clined significantly. Among the industry groups, technology and finance were the drivers of emer-gent action. Within most industries, American companies undertook the highest abso-lute level of action that “ran ahead of” expectations for costly climate-related risks or high-yield climate-related opportunities. However, German companies contributed most significantly to the upward trend in emergent action—an especially notable find-ing given that historically they have operated in a context of strong state leadership in the climate issue area. The overarching implication of this study is that non-state actors that individu-ally do not appear inclined to alter their approaches vis-à-vis a global issue can, through a decentralized and uncoordinated process, and in the context of states failing to provide leadership, come to change course and move in a cohesive new direction—and ultimately reshape the landscape in which states must advance their own interests.