Between trust and distrust – Expectations and knowledge coordination in policy production and governance of climate change and biodiversity problems

Last changed: 22 April 2024

The project will develop dialogical approaches, useful for coordination of knowledge and action in governance of climate and biodiversity.

In society's work to slow down climate change, there are dilemmas and uncertainty about how climate change can be reduced, and how society should prioritise between different goals. Conflicts can arise between groups with different views on what is true and right about the future. The actors in these conflicts often talk about trust gaps and lack of trust as a problem.

One example is the role of forests in reducing climate effects. Intensification with more logging, planting, fast-growing trees, extraction of biofuel and fertilization, is expected to give higher growth that binds carbon. But reduced harvesting and intensity, are also said to preserve sequestered carbon and biodiversity. Different actors and experts make different assessments.

The debate about what is true and right is intense. This discussion reached even more public debate arenas when Swedish Public Television (SVT) published its program series Kampen om skogen. Forestry organizations wrote that the tone was worrying and that they lacked confidence in SVT, environmental organizations said that it was good that the discussion about the forest reached the public audience. Actors exchange perceptions about the forest and the future, and also express mistrust in other actors.

More tensions arise in the wake of climate action: Wind power is criticized for impacting biodiversity and the landscape, electrification of the transport sector requires the mining of rare earth metals, reduced meat consumption can lead to overgrowing natural pastures and reduced biodiversity. These questions are technical but also touch expectations of how the public and democratic discussion should be conducted. When controversial issues are discussed in forums and meetings, words such as "trust", "mistrust" and "trust gap" appear when actors describe the relationships and communication with other actors - how the situation is and how they wish it were.

In this research project, we investigate how disagreement can be expressed without damaging the parties' trust in each other, and how they can explore the situation instead of shutting down the discussion.

Conflicts can be both constructive and destructive. They are constructive, since disagreements and conflicting goals point to the need for political consideration. They are destructive when communication is deficient and violent.

Trust has shown to be necessary for successful conflict management around natural resource management. In order to improve the situation, it is crucial to understand what the social actors who express concern about mistrust mean, and which social processes are involved when trust and mistrust change.

We will investigate the meaning various actors involved place in the concepts of trust and mistrust, as well as research how trust and mistrust change in and through text and conversations between actors. In many cases, trust and mistrust are seen as two opposite concepts, where either or applies, and as something that can be fixed and measured. In contrast to this, this research approach assumes that trust and mistrust are created dynamically in the social interaction between the actors, and that they are connected.

The overarching aim of the proposed research is to develop dialogical approaches which are useful for coordination of knowledge and action in governance of climate and biodiversity, when knowledge is ambiguous and contested and actors express distrust, fear of distrust, or desire for trust, and when these social relations risk to make governance procedures and policy production confusing.

The project includes analysis of the use of trust-distrust-related words in media and social media texts; analysis of conversations in meetings about governance processes; focus group interviews on experiences of trust and distrust; and workshops to develop, suggest, and try routines for managing trust and mistrust.

The project is supported by organisations involved in natural resource management and policy production with different, potentially conflicting perspectives. These organisations share an ambition to manage dialogue and trust in constructive ways and contribute to the research with case study proposals, exchange of experiences and reflections on the usefulness of the analysis and recommendations.


Project leader

Lars Hallgren, Senior Lecturer, Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, +4618672584
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Project participants

Hanna Bergeå, Researcher, Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, +4618672182
Read more about Hanna Bergeå on her CV page
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Martin Westin, Researcher, Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, +4618671942
Read more about Martin Westin on his CV page
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Sally Wiggins Young, Professor, Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning (IBL) Linköping University
Read more about Sally Wiggings Young on her presentation page
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Emily Montgomerie, Doctoral Student, Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, +4618671000
Read more about Emily Montgomerie on her CV page 
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Rikard Hedling, Doctoral Student, Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, +4618671000
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Project time


External funding

Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development - Formas