Trust and its role in climate change communication

People who distrust scientists are less likely to agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, and more likely to support climate sceptic governments. For this reason, enhancing trust in climate science is often seen as a silver bullet to help increase public concern about climate change and grow support for climate policy. However, trust is a slippery concept that means different things in different contexts. While calls to increase trust abound, it is often unclear what kind of trust is needed, and how it might be created.

What is trust?

Most broadly, trust is a feeling of confidence that the trusted will act in a way that is expected and in line with our interests. It has been described as a collective adaptation that enables people to limit the complexity of their everyday lives by reducing the number of options that need to be considered.

Trusting can be either an explicit decision, or an implicit, sub-conscious reliance on something or someone. Although we often think of trust as a quality of interpersonal relationships, people also trust in systems (e.g. the internet), symbols (e.g. money), institutions (, objects (e.g. cars), ideas (e.g. democracy), and living things (e.g. domesticated animals).

If you think about how hard it would be to evaluate and actively choose between all the possible outcomes of every interaction you have, the value of trust in simplifying everyday life becomes clear. The dilemma for climate science is that, by pointing out the environmental impacts of everyday activities – driving, eating meat, burning fossil fuels – we are forced to question our trust in many aspects of our everyday life. This is both confronting and exhausting, and can lead people to challenge the trustworthiness of the science, or simply to turn off from messages about climate change.

Trust in experts

Currently, trust in all sectors of society is at historic lows, and while trust in experts appears to be rebounding, it is increasingly polarised along political lines. Conservative or right-wing people are less likely to trust experts in human impacts on the environment, such as climate scientists, but more likely to trust experts in production science whose work leads to economic development. These differences are exacerbated by partisan media and the echo chamber effect of social media.

It is important to think about why trust in scientists might be warranted. The legitimacy of scientific knowledge as a tool for making political decisions is based on longstanding perceptions of science as objective and neutral. This leads to a form of trust based on authority. We tend to rely on science to sort out the facts, and define the questions before we think about how our values and interests might be applied to them.

As issues such as climate change are making increasingly clear, facts and values cannot be so easily separated. For example, it is a fact that carbon dioxide emissions lead to global warming, but not all carbon dioxide emissions are ethically equivalent – some are required for subsistence, and others might be considered luxury. Both facts and values need to be considered in how we define the problem of emissions.

The concerns of people whose understandings of risks do not conform to the interpretations implied by scientists is important in growing public trust in climate science and policy. Scientists and communicators can build trust by recognising that many different values and opinions are legitimate and important in defining risks that have previously been considered primarily in a scientific context. This kind of trust is based on a two-way understanding of interdependence between science and society, rather than one-way trust in authority.

Trust as ‘social glue’

This kind of reciprocal, two-way relationship makes use of a rather wonderful feature of trust: the more we trust, the more trusted we are. Trust relations are not only established between individuals with direct experience of each other, but also flow through complex social networks, leading to trust being described as the ‘social glue’ that holds the web of society together. Trust is continuously reproduced in these networks through acts of trust between people, institutions, systems, and objects.

This social glue creates an opportunity for climate change communicators to tap into networks of trust in order to reconnect with groups who have lost trust in the existing narratives or policies around climate change. One way to do this could be to build relationships with trusted messengers who have a connection with these groups. Another strategy could be to facilitate discussion about the shared values of groups with different attitudes to climate change.

Whatever strategies are used, the reciprocal nature of trust means that it is important for climate change communicators to involve different social groups in dialogue, and to listen, rather than just providing one-way communication. In this way, trust enables empowered and interdependent relationships between scientists and the public.

Burning Questions

Trust and mistrust can exist in the same relationship, at the same time. How can this be understood, and how can it be managed?

Trust in systems, which I have referred to as ‘trust in everyday life’ is generally subconscious and implicit until disrupted (for example by climate science). How can we avoid the existential anxiety created by bringing this implicit trust to the surface, and questioning it?

How useful is consensus messaging in generating trust in climate science and policy?

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