The episodic formation, consolidation and breakdown of preindustrial states occurred in multiple contexts worldwide during the last 5000 years and are contingent upon interacting endogenous economic, demographic and political mechanisms. In some instances, there is support for climate change stimulating integration or inducing sociopolitical fragmentation in these complex systems. Here, we build upon this paradigm and introduce the hypothesis that stable climatic conditions favour the formation of agrarian states, while persistently volatile climatic conditions can contribute to the episodic collapse of these complex societies. It is generally recognized that agrarian economies underwrite preindustrial state-level societies. In these contexts, the economic uncertainty associated with highly volatile climatic regimes makes it difficult for individuals or institutions to determine the costs and benefits of one agricultural strategy over another. We argue that this fosters sociopolitical instability and decentralization. As a first test of this hypothesis, we examine the historical dynamics of state formation and decline in the Mexican and Andean highlands within the last 2000 years. The available data in these regions are consistent with the hypothesis that the formation and consolidation of regional polities and empires is favoured in stable climatic regimes and that political decentralization can be stimulated and perpetuated by highly volatile climatic conditions.