How climate change research undermines trust in everyday life

We all want to trust and be trusted. It reinforces the systems and practices that make normal life possible. But what happens if tackling climate change asks us to re-align these deep networks of everyday, implicit trust?

Chloe Lucas, Peat Leith and Aidan Davison
Chloe Lucas is a PhD candidate, Peat Leith is a Research Fellow and Aidan Davison is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania

We all want to trust and be trusted. Trust is social glue: it binds together networks of people, technologies, organisations, ideas and routines. It reinforces the systems and practices that make normal life possible.

In recent years, climate change researchers have had to deal with public perceptions that they are not trustworthy or transparent. Building public trust in climate science is considered vital to acceptance of the need for action on climate change. But what if the problem is not our ability to trust scientists? Could some of the negative reaction to climate research be because it threatens trust in the systems and practices that underpin our everyday lives?

In an article published in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, we review a substantial body of recent social, psychological and neuroscientific research that suggests this may be the case. Climate research poses a challenge to ways of living that we take for granted and implicitly trust. This creates psychological and social anxiety, and contributes to polarised political responses to climate change.

What is ‘implicit trust’?
By the time you turn off your alarm clock in the morning, check your phone, and get up to have a hot shower and a cup of coffee, you have already made several implicit acts of trust. While you may not be consciously aware of it, you have implicitly trusted a network of objects, experts, practices and systems that you use in your everyday life. You trust your alarm clock to wake you up, your phone to connect you with those you care about, your kettle to safely boil and pour the water for your coffee. You implicitly trust that these systems will serve your interests in reliable and predictable ways.

Implicit trust does not require conscious, reasoned decisions. Once established through cultural routine and personal experience, it happens intuitively and automatically. It is useful, indeed vital, because it reduces our need to weigh up endless possibilities. Neuropsychological research tells us that this type of trust response happens in the emotional centre of the brain, which includes the amygdala and hippocampus.

We implicitly trust the electricity supply to charge our gadgets, to warm our water… and so on.

Many of the things we rely on in everyday life are fossil-fuelled
All these everyday ‘necessities’ rely on the exploitation of relatively cheap fossil fuels. The fossil-fuelled economic boom of the last 60 years enabled consumer-led development pioneered in places like Australia and now familiar around the world. It led to longer, safer, more comfortable lives. Mains electricity, hot water, cars, planes, phones, and the infrastructure that supports them, as well as the routines they tie us to, are so integral to our lives it is hard to imagine life without them. We are psychologically tied to systems and practices that climate scientists tell us are endangering our world. Drawing on individual and collective experience, we implicitly trust in these ways of living to keep us safe and contented.

So it is not surprising that, when asked to question our trust in global markets and consumer-led development, many of us react by distrusting messengers of the need for urgent climate action. Denial of discomforting messages is one of the psychological defence mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from anxiety, uncertainty and fear.

The psychological cost of loss of implicit trust
In ‘Living in Denial’, Kari Norgaard suggests that public silence about climate change should not be interpreted as apathy, but often masks feelings of powerlessness and despair. Many of us live with a gnawing sense that our everyday lives are contributing to a warming planet.

The idea that simply by carrying on as normal we are digging our own graves is profoundly troubling. We begin to question our implicit trust in the car, the bank, the supermarket – but we have no alternative systems with which to replace them. Ironically, the resulting anxiety can make us fall back on the familiar systems and practices that are causing the problem. They have, after all, been a source of wealth and safety for as long as we can remember.

Rather than trying to engender trust in scientific claims, we suggest climate change communicators address a different question: How can networks of implicit trust be re-aligned to allow for a sustainable transformation of everyday life?

For the rest of us, the challenge may be to re-assess our relationship with the things we take for granted and implicitly trust. We may discover alternative ways of living that create an authentic sense of security for both us and the planet.

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