The rise of the ‘Climate State’

Image credit: BlackRockSolar (Flickr: Creative Commons)

With the recent news that 2016 will, in all likelihood, be the year that the world enters into a permanent 400 parts per million atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, it is abundantly clear: we have failed to avert a destabilised climate future, and may yet fail to avert catastrophic, civilisation-threatening climate change. Even the best-case scenarios from hereon will require large-scale transformations and, perhaps, revisions in our expectations of what the state is able to provide. As the state is forced to dedicate a far higher proportion of its resources to climate adaptation measures and maintaining order, welfare provision will become subject to contestation and a new institutional form, the ‘Climate State’, will emerge.

That, at least, is the take of Professor Peter Christoff of the University of Melbourne. In a recent talk delivered as part of the University of Queensland’s Research Seminar Series, Professor Christoff offered a thought provoking, if considerably sobering, prediction for the evolution of the sovereign state. He offers two different visions of potential state transformation, hinging on how quick and effective response to climate change is. There is the optimistic scenario, in which entrepreneurialism and decisive regulation enable us to quietly implode carbon-based capitalism and stabilise global temperatures at 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This scenario will lead to the rise of what Christoff terms the ‘Adaptive State’. Its twin goals will be the immediate reduction of greenhouse gases and the implementation of long term adaptation measures. It would require strong intervention, analogous to a national post-war reconstruction approach; and although able to retain key aspects of the welfare state, would have to sharply reduce significant areas of public expenditure.

The alternative, more pessimistic scenario—and the one that Christoff indicates as more likely—is a little more dystopic. If the international community fails to mitigate emissions in time to stabilise at 2 degrees, Christoff envisions the rise of the ‘Fortress State,’ primarily defined by a constant state of climate emergency. To the degree that it could defend its traditional role as guarantor of social welfare, this could only be done by becoming more insular; global trade would collapse in a general retreat to mercantilism and autarky. Climate refugees would have to be repelled. In such a 'Hot, Hobbesian world' violence would be commonplace and the maintenance of order would become paramount. Public expenditure would shift from social spending to military and law enforcement, adopting a model similar to European states of the 19th century when 25% of public expenditure was oriented towards the military. Overall, international relations would be situated in ‘An anarchic, militarised, deglobalised context…’. Scary stuff indeed.

It is of course true that the typology of the ‘adaptive state’ and the ‘fortress state’ is inherently speculative. Additionally, while claiming that the ‘evolutionary room’ for viable state forms will narrow, Christoff admits that the specific strategies pursued by each state will vary greatly, presumably according to such factors as pre-existing institutions, political culture and available resources. Accordingly, one might ask: of what value is such a schema that attempts to capture such disparate phenomena under two headings? After all, the pressures of globalisation are largely common to states and yet different forms of capitalism and welfare state models have emerged. There can be different institutional responses to common problems.

I think it could be argued that the virtue of Christoff’s terminology and speculations is chiefly in how his presentation, perhaps with polemic intent, offers to smash our sense of complacency. This is an underexplored topic, and efforts at sketching out contingencies, however speculative, are to be lauded.

In situating the challenge to the welfare state, Christoff rightly points to the coming climate reckoning as but one half of a conjuncture of dual crises. The burdens accruing from climate change have to be seen in the context of the welfare state’s already precarious fiscal position. Across the OECD growth has slowed for the past three decades, public and private debt has escalated, while tax revenues have declined. Global growth has failed to resuscitate since the global financial crisis and the austerity measures widely introduced in its wake have proved ineffective. Add to this the fact that raising revenue through tax increases has become politically toxic and the structural situation only worsens. Indeed, tax cuts in recent times have been shown to have a ratchet effect, as even ‘temporary’ cuts become impossible to undo as the Obama administration’s battle over the Bush tax cuts demonstrated. In addition, ageing populations in the OECD countries entail rising costs in areas such as healthcare, housing, pensions and superannuation.

When the likely effects of climate change are overlaid on these pre-existing fiscal pressures, therefore, the scenario becomes bleaker still. Many of these costs are hard to predict with any precision, but they will consist of costs associated with mitigation, adaptation, direct effects (e.g. damage to coastal property and relocation) and indirect effects (e.g. influx of climate refugees). The ongoing costs to growth are estimated by the IPCC to be around 0.5-2% of global GDP every year. This is under the proviso that warming is kept to only 2 degrees above pre-industrial averages and that strong efforts at adaptation are made. It is certainly difficult to see how the welfare state, in its current form, could sustain these costs.

The primary resource of the optimists seems to be the belief in the redemptive potential of technology. Globally, energy intensity is now 33% lower than it was in 1970 due to advances in efficiency. While this is encouraging, prima facie, the gains in efficiency have actually been negated by population growth and economic growth. The scale of technological change needed is simply enormous. To stabilise at 450ppm would require a 21 x improvement in the current ratio of carbon to economic output. Consider also that the tool usually touted as most likely to unleash innovation—a global carbon market—remains politically infeasible.

Reconciling ourselves to this troubled reality, it is time we questioned the overweening narrative of ever-upward progress that seems to have calcified in our collective self-understanding. Absent immediate action, something like the ‘fortress state’ remains eminently possible. The polemic prognostications of Professor Christoff serve to further underline that, when it comes to climate change, if you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention.

Jack Shield is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.