Citizens’ opinions are crucial for action on climate change, but are, owing to the complexity of the issue, diverse and potentially unformed1. We contribute to the understanding of public views on climate change and to knowledge needed by decision-makers by using a new approach to analyse answers to the open survey question ‘what comes to mind when you hear the words ‘climate change’?’. We apply automated text analysis, specifically structural topic modelling2, which induces distinct topics based on the relative frequencies of the words used in 2,115 responses. From these data, originating from the new, nationally representative Norwegian Citizen Panel, four distinct topics emerge: Weather/Ice, Future/Impact, Money/Consumption and Attribution. We find that Norwegians emphasize societal aspects of climate change more than do respondents in previous US and UK studies3, 4, 5, 6. Furthermore, variables that explain variation in closed questions, such as gender and education, yield different and surprising results when employed to explain variation in what respondents emphasize. Finally, the sharp distinction between scepticism and acceptance of conventional climate science, often seen in previous studies, blurs in many textual responses as scepticism frequently turns into ambivalence.