Election results are just one factor in making meaningful societal changes happen, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw

Opinion: This week’s local body election results were a mixed bag for those many of us motivated to protect the places that we love and the delicate ecosystems that support us all.

At the global, national and local scale, people in politics who make decisions matter to the intergenerational challenge of climate breakdown. These politicians matter because they will be the ones to make the responsible decisions that work to slow, and eventually stop, the megatonnes of carbon pollution being pumped into our atmosphere each year. 

Their decisions go much further than simply stopping the carbon pollution that is trapping heat like a blanket, warming our planet and causing our climate to collapse.

Their decisions are critical in rebuilding the health of the many ecosystems that we rely upon in every facet of our lives from work, trade, care, play. These people have a big influence on helping us to create ways of living that are much more in line with the connection we all have to the earth.

So yes elections and people in politics matter.

People in politics are tethered to us – the public

However, while who gets voted in can feel like it makes or break effective and responsible climate action – and hence election results can be the source of great hope or despair for people working on it – there is a critical piece of the decision making jigsaw that we often miss when we focus on individual decision makers and the power they have: people in politics are tethered to public understanding and support.

To paraphrase the strategist Daniel Hunter, people in politics are like a balloon that is tied to a rock — that rock being public understanding and support. Being tethered to that rock means those with decision-making power can only sway so far from the rock.

If you ever have conversations with people in politics about effective policy you will sometimes hear them say “I know that is what should be done and I’ll do it if I hear from the public they want it”. People with the power to make decisions that make the biggest difference will shift when they see public understanding and support shift also. 

So regardless of the person in the hot political seat, shifting the rock (that is building public understanding, shifting their mindsets on issues) is a fundamental part of influencing all decision-makers to engage in effective and responsible climate (and indeed other) actions – especially over the longer term.  

Relying on political leaders to shift alone is risky – inclusive movements are needed

Advocating for individual decision-makers to vote a certain way or advocate for specific policies is a key strategy used by those seeking to make changes that make a big difference. Building relationships with people in politics, providing advice and working directly with them to help them understand the need for shift, is a proven strategy to achieve change (in all directions).

It is also risky where long-term and significant transformation is needed for public good. As a strategy it won’t change or contest dominant and unhelpful mindsets that are shaping society’s willingness to support change or act. Without that understanding and support, the risk is that a policy forced through on a vote alone, may get dialed back when that politician moves on or their influence wanes. 

Occasionally you will get a decisive and focused leader in politics who will drag the rock (people in public) along by sheer force of will and personality alone. However, in the current environment of false information and well organised groups seeking to undermine ideas of truth and democracy itself, such people are still highly reliant on a public mandate.

One solution lies where it so often has in our collective progressive history – broad based inclusive movements that reach people open to persuasion and shift their understanding about the issues. From the end of slavery, the civil rights movement, abortion reform in Ireland, the anti smacking laws in Aotearoa, people in politics have been shifted to make better policy when the public understanding of the issues has been shifted by people working together in movements. 

Narrative strategies have always been an important part of these movements- strategies that seek to contest existing and dominating ideas, prioritise different values and ways of conceptualising problems and solutions in the public.  

Such narrative strategies help to replace dominant and harmful ideas with less dominant ones that are collectively held but used less frequently.

Concepts such as the equal value of all lives (Black Lives Matter), the wisdom, leadership and knowledge of indigenous people (Indigenous climate movements), the importance of care for all people in difficult circumstances ((Together for Yes in Ireland), the importance and power of love in all our lives, and being able to love who you want (gay marriage reform).  Movement building and narrativs shifts are not fast work, but then neither are many of these problems going to be solved in our generation, so sometimes we can go slow to go fast.

Shifting the public has to happen in partnership with advocating and communicating in the short-term

Narrative strategies are long-term work, but you also need short-term public communication strategies that are able to read the room.

Without being able to see where the opportunities and risks for change currently lie, the tone that is needed, where the public and political attention is focused, narrative strategies and movements won’t take off. They won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities that arise, especially during a crisis.

That is why strategic communication, which includes advocacy and responsive campaigns for change, needs to be built into movements alongside narrative strategies. When working in concert with narrative strategies that contest dominant ideas, strategic communications can be more powerful.

Ultimately, for me, it helps to put those harder-to-take political results in context of the multifaceted way that change happens – for those working on bending our decision-makers, our actions now, towards climate justice there is still much to be hopeful for. The evidence is strong that there are many people in the public who have the potential to develop their understanding of climate action.

And as the climate collapse makes its impacts felt more and more they will need us to continue with this work. 

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