Talanoa Dialogue builds trust to raise ambition

The Talanoa Dialogue is an historic breakthrough for the UN climate negotiations, and also for defining the shape of the global civic space. Recognizing that the Paris Agreement mandate to 195 national governments to facilitate each other’s raising of ambition in 2018 would require vast amounts of new information, Fiji’s COP23 presidency called for a year-round Preparatory Phase, through which stakeholders from around the world would provide testimony to be considered by negotiators.

On Sunday, May 6, in Bonn, the first round of working review sessions took place. There were seven Talanoa Dialogue groups addressing the three guiding questions: Where are we? Where do we want to go? and How do we get there? In each of these workshops, thirty national delegates were joined by 5 non-party stakeholder representatives and one facilitator.

Each group sat in a circle, with no table to separate them, and with an ibe (an intricately plaited ceremonial mat) and the tanoa (a wooden bowl used in a welcome ceremony in which a host and guest share kava, a drink made from a Pacific island plant.

The Talanoa Dialogue is not a negotiation; it is a sharing of stories. This is a more personal asking and answering, about the meaningful life experience and motivation for engaging in this work. As Fiji’s lead negotiator, Ambassador Luke Daunivalu, noted:

It is not just about telling your story, but listening to the stories of others. Because no one has all the answers. This is a journey we are embarking on to learn from each other.

Many different political systems around the world have been surprised and disrupted in recent years by a surge in opposition to what are perceived to be unaccountable technocratic elites. It is, of course, unfair to rule out refined technical knowledge as “elite”, simply because not everyone has it. Legitimate governance requires evidence-based decision-making and so technical expert insight, while elevating factional preference over fact-based reasoning invites corruption and conflict.

Still, most people tend to reserve the right to question decisions made without their knowledge or input. This poses a real challenge to the complex global work of addressing climate change. The discussions and the solutions are highly technical, and there is never enough official negotiating time to invite substantive input even from most of the Parties to the UN Climate Convention (the 195 nation-state governments).

As a result, a lot of people work very long hours, for many months, just to make sure individual meetings or negotiations are productive. But technical expertise does not fill all of the needs. Political decisions are made in a complex context of human and institutional interactions, within and between countries. Political decisions that recognize the need to do no harm require empathy, while the competition for resources, or for an economic advantage, can disrupt intergovernmental negotiations.

In the reporting back plenary session on Tuesday, national delegations and negotiating groups shared their views about how the Talanoa Dialogue makes a more ambitious outcome possible:

  • New Zealand said the Talanoa sessions made it possible to hear how much energy is going into so many diverse ways of confronting climate change.
  • Botswana said the sharing of stories made clear that we need to keep global warming to 1.5ºC, and called for expanding support to build resilience, in order to save the continent.
  • The EU said the dialgoues are a credibility test of ambition cycle, because by allowing negotiators, politicians, and non-state actors to talk directly to each other, they “bring the real world into the climate policy process”. The EU also added that it was “clear citizens around the world are demanding action to address climate change” and so the COP24 should “build a contract that includes governments, business, civil society and citizens.”
  • Mexico said “most important for us was listening” … to discover new solutions from each other, adding that the Talanoa Dialogue can create new momomentum, by fostering a “sense of working as a community to find a solution.”
  • Nigeria shared two strong messages of support: 1) Non-state actors are critical to the success of this effort. 2) At the national level, we should replicate this process, to make sure nobody is left behind.
  • The COP23 Presidency closed the reporting back plenary by saying the Talanoa Dialogue is not only the meetings that were held in Bonn, on May 6, saying “Your feedback and contributions are part of the process. You are all part of the Talanoa Dialogue.”

When we engage less in this kind of dialogue, it becomes easier to dismiss the unspoken underlying values of the other as less motivating, less supportive of ambitious collaboration for the common good. When we allow ourselves to listen for the values that motivate the others around the room, it becomes easier to find common ground and to work in a collaborative way.

Ambition increases, because reciprocal benefits become more apparent, and working toward them together becomes more attractive.


If you would like to contribute to the Talanoa Dialogue process, take a look at engage4climate’s Talanoa Dialogue Engagement Toolkit. It is intended to support any stakeholder, or group of stakeholders, anywhere, in hosting meetings, structuring them around potential contributions, and then reporting with clear and useful narrative sharing and/or climate action guidance.

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About Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He coordinates the building of CCL's citizen engagement groups on 5 continents, leads the Citizens' Climate Engagement Network and represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes. He is a member of the Executive Board of the UN-linked NGO Committee on Sustainable Development-NY and of the Policy and Strategy Group for the World We Want. He is also the founder of Geoversiv.net and the Geoversiv Foundation and the lead strategist supporting the high-level climate dialogue series Accelerating Progress, Advancing Innovation.