Using new economic frames to drive climate action

Using new economic frames to drive climate action

Working as a clinical psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes grew weary of seeing the negative impacts of a sick economic system on people’s lives and well-being. This sparked his interest in exploring how economic worldviews and metaphors shape our culture and relationship with nature. Now trained as an economist as well, Stoknes is uncovering barriers to climate action and developing new narratives based on positive solutions.

When you listen to Per Espen speak or read his book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming it’s clear he is not limited by traditional economic transactional thinking. The story of where we need to go extends far beyond supply and demand, tying an aspirational green growth narrative to stories of well-being, stewardship and re-wilding that creates a yearning for the future.

While a critical tool, overemphasizing economic solutions to climate change can limit progress. According to Stoknes, framing the problem as strictly a carbon pricing issue where ownership of the right to emit is allocated and people act rationally requires a global price on carbon, which is difficult to achieve, and spurs arguments against context-specific carbon pricing or subsidies for new low-carbon technologies.

Instead, Stoknes calls for a broader narrative where economic growth is truly generative with wealth and resources being created by improving the green systems we need to thrive such as investing in low-carbon energy and building up agricultural and water resources. The emphasis must be on innovation and changing market conditions that require change as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. Signals are needed that we are making progress toward a generative economy in order to change norms and behaviors. For example, the benefits of a carbon tax could be made visible by sending taxpayers dividend checks.

Yet focusing on economics is not enough. Green growth stories must be tied to well-being, stewardship, and re-wilding narratives. 

Well-being stories emphasize quality and satisfaction of life, social justice and generosity as part of the new wealth and generate a sense of hope. Stewardship stories are relevant even for those who do not associate with any religion as they articulate moral obligations. Climate disruption raises three major ethical issues given: the most vulnerable to impacts emitted the least historically, current emissions have intergenerational effects, and the value of nonhuman nature. Conservation narratives can gain traction as being a responsible steward of nature is often part of conservative worldviews. Re-wilding stories are about nature’s capacity to help us address climate disruption and what we are for, rather than against. They bring in appreciation for the beauty of the places where we live, the art and culture, and the creatures we share our communities with. 

Green growth, well-being, stewardship, and re-wilding narratives can be woven together into a larger story of where we need to go in a manner that makes it desirable, rather than apocalyptic. For Stoknes, solution narratives are about infusing hope into climate communication, yet this does not have to be based on a “passive optimism” (i.e. technology with save us) or “active optimism” (i.e. can-do ingenuity will save us). Instead, there is a third path that involves “active skepticism” where action is taken despite uncertainties and complexities. The active skeptic gives up optimistic hope yet is willing to do what is called for.

As the climate conversation continues to move from denial to a debate over responses, leaders will need to articulate the importance of incorporating values beyond economic (i.e. just energy systems, not just efficient and cost effective), and develop their active skeptic skills so the hope and possibility of change can be conveyed alongside a push for meaningful, balanced solutions.


Learn more about Per Espen Stoknes’ work at

Image via Jamaica Plain Forum