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Max Koch. Foto: Johan Persson.

Max Koch

FD och habilitation i sociologi från Freie Universität Berlin | Professor

Max Koch. Foto: Johan Persson.

Reconceptualizing Welfare States and Social Policies in Times of Climate Emergency


  • Tuuli Hirvilammi
  • Håkan Johansson
  • Liisa Häikiö
  • Max Koch
  • Johanna Perkiö

Summary, in English

Social policies developed as means to ensure societal development in the context of rising capitalism and industrialization. Many countries transformed into modern welfare states addressing a wide range of social risks and social problems. Social policy entangled with economic growth both as a promoter of the ‘growth machine’ and as a mechanism to redistribute resources secured by economic development. From today’s perspective, social policy has been efficient in increasing wellbeing, but with consequences of environment losses. The shared scientific understanding of the limits of global biocapacity and the worsening scenarios of climate change have not (yet) reshaped mainstream social policy practices or academic research.

Welfare state research and comparative social policy studies developed as research fields and academic disciplines in the context of rising capitalism and industrialization in Western societies. Academics have engaged in exploring and explaining the rise, golden years and fall of modern welfare states, old and new social risks as well as how welfare state configurations and social policies produce different outcomes. Social policy scholars have however largely neglected to address the most pressing issue at our time: climate change. Now we are witnessing the consequences of delayed actions as is seen in forest fires, droughts, floods and extreme heats. The global temperature in 2020 is again the highest in record since 1850. We live in a situation of climate emergency, referring to the short time span we have to prevent irreversible and potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Social policies are not separate from climate policies as pathways to limit global warming to 1.5 C require deep emissions reductions in all sectors – including welfare institutions. When taking the climate emergency as a starting point to discuss the current questions and future pathways of social policy research, new questions arise. What kinds of social issues and social risks emerge with climate emergency and how to respond on these? How does climate emergency challenge the goals and aims of social policy? How to improve human wellbeing within the limits of biocapacity?

This paper argues that the climate emergency pushes us to rethink social policy research agendas and problematize widely shared notions of the goals and outcomes of social policy. The purpose of the paper is to revisit a selection of central themes in welfare state and comparative social policy research, to review how the context of climate emergency challenges them and to develop alternative understandings. The issues that will be discussed include the concept of wellbeing, tasks of welfare states, different modes of social inclusion, means of provision and levels of regulation. The paper draws on and contributes to the ongoing interdisciplinary academic discussions on ‘sustainable welfare’, ‘eco social policies’, ‘eco welfare state’ and ‘green welfare states’, yet being aware that only few contributions have so far broadly reconceptualized welfare and social policies.


  • Socialhögskolan






Konferensbidrag: abstract


  • Social Work
  • Climate Research


  • Climate emergency
  • Social policy
  • welfare state

Conference name

The European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), Joint Sesssions

Conference date

2021-05-17 - 2021-06-28