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Understanding normative change to address the climate emergency

Consider all the actions that individuals, businesses or governments could take to limit climate change, to make the world greener, cleaner and safer for our children. WHAT STOPS US? Is it the costs, conflict of interests, complex intertwined structures, people’s resistance against giving up convenience and embracing radical change? The usual response is to find the least costly pathways and technological innovations that ask as little as possible from people, businesses, legislation and administration. But let’s be honest, we haven’t made much progress with this so far, precisely because we avoid the difficult question of social change.

But what did we do some centuries, decades, or even two years ago, that seems so unthinkable now? Clearly, social change is possible, and the COVID-19 crisis has shown that social change can happen rapidly, if an emergency is recognised as such and if there is a moral imperative to act to stop or prevent large-scale harm. The pandemic showed the capability for governments to take radical action and the possible rapid pace of technological innovation if money is channelled accordingly. So, our research is about understanding how social change can be made possible, how it can be accelerated, what factors hinder social change and how can we avoid them.

Previous research has suggested that normative change (change in what behaviours and attitudes are socially accepted) can drive large-scale social change and that this normative change is often triggered by social movements (e.g. abolitionist movement, suffragettes). The three goals of this research project are accordingly:
1. Understanding what normative change is happening now,
2. Understanding what is blocking change,
3. Understanding what can be done to amplify the change.

We use a mixed-methods approach of big data analysis, interviews, experiments, surveys and computational models and we collaborate with civil society and policy makers.


Dr Viktoria Spaiser, Principal Investigator (PI)/ UKRI Future Leaders Fellow,, on X (former Twitter): viktoria_sp , on Blue Sky: and on Linked In


Dr Nicole Nisbett, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and on X (former Twitter): NicoleDNisbett and on Linked In. Nicole has sadly left the project to seek new career opportunities. Viktoria Spaiser is very grateful for her immense contribution to the project.


Susan Ann Samuel, PhD student,, and on X (former Twitter): @SusanAnnSamuel1 and on Linked In


Academic Output

  • Nisbett, N., Spaiser, V., Leston Bandeira, C., Valdenegro, D. (2024). Climate Action or Delay: The Dynamics of Competing Narratives in the Political Sphere and their Drivers. Climate Policy, in review. Preprint on SSRN:
  • Ann Samuel, S. (2024): The Role of Small Island Developing States as Norm Champions: A Force to be Reckoned with in Climate Politics. In: Tiky, L. & Kulnazarova, A. (eds.): Global South Agency in International Politics. Palgrave MacMillan
  • Spaiser, V., Juhola, S., Constantino, S., Guo, W., ..., Abrams, J.F. (2023). Negative Social Tipping Dynamics Resulting from and Reinforcing Earth System Destabilisation. Earth System Dynamics, R&R, preprint:
  • Nisbett, N.; Spaiser, V. (2023): How convincing are AI-generated moral arguments for climate action? Frontiers in Climate, 5, 1193350.
  • Nisbett, N.; Spaiser, V. (2023): Moral power of youth activists – Transforming international climate Politics? Global Environmental Change,
  • Spaiser, V.; Nisbett, N.; Stefan, C. (2022): How dare you? - The Normative Challenge posed by Fridays for Future. PLoS Climate, 1(10): e0000053. 
  • Spaiser, V.; Dunn, K.; Milner, P.; Moore, J.: The Effects of Communicating Climate Change Threat: Mobilizing Anger and Authoritarian Affect Displacement. Environmental Sociology, R&R. Preprint on PsyArXiv:






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