The Talanoa diague exhibit at COP23
The ‘Talanoa dialogue’ model was introduced at COP23 in Bonn. (Photo: David McCarthy)

BONN, Germany – “It has been almost a thousand and one nights since we signed a contract in Paris,” Iranian climate expert Majid Shafie-Pour begins his story. In chairs gathered around him, people are leaning forward, their interest piqued.

“Of course, you all know the famous narrator from my world: Unlike Scheherazade, we have not reached our goal yet.” His words are unusual for an official statement at a climate conference – a new sound, smooth, attractive, ironic. The allusion to the oriental fairy tale world as familiar as it is mysterious.

Shortly thereafter, another story cycle from world literature gets mentioned: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which protagonists, like the narrator from Persia, face destruction by a dark, malevolent power.

Finish line lies ahead, but ‘at least we have started’

Joana Vieira da Silva of the Portuguese Environmental Agency quotes a piece of hobbit wisdom: “It’s always the work that never starts that takes the longest to finish.” And adds, “At least we have started.”

Fairy tales and fantasy novels at an international climate conference? Isn’t the topic too serious for that? Well, for the foreseeable future delegates telling stories, getting personal, maybe emotional, likely will be a part of climate summits. Katowice, in Poland, is to host the first such meeting in December 2018, but a trial run for the new negotiating format – the Talanoa Polynesian conversation technique – is helping show the way. At a climate meeting in Bonn this past spring, Talanoa involved participants meeting face to face and telling each other stories about problems and solutions.

The outlook for the first test of the Talanoa format, in November 2017 in Bonn, had been mixed. As soon as the concept was introduced at COP23 in Bonn hyperbole engulfed it. Advance hype had the format leading to miracles – creating trust, raising ambitions, breaking down barriers, helping to launch international cooperation, and starting a meaningful dialogue between and among states and civil society (see earlier article).

Fiji had helped drive up those expectations: its former chief negotiator, Nazhat Shameen Khan, had even called for the contributions to the dialogue to be given in literary form, laid out as stories and trimmed for expression, effect, and audience. Such an approach fits the findings of some social research: Storytelling – in science lingo, use of narratives – can help communicating on climate (see here and here).

However, when those 2017 participants were first asked to follow that guidance, most failed. Fiji had requested written answers to questions which were to structure the three rounds of Talanoa dialogue: Where do we stand? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? What resulted were traditional statements in solid PR English. Lots of useful information, no stories. (Fiji itself had placed a data table on the contributions front page.)

And then too there was the planned format: In seven rooms, 30 states would meet with five civil society organizations, which changed from round to round. The allocation of speaking time would hardly befit a meaningful dialogue: At least the participants sat in circles of chairs in the seven Talanoa rooms, which were named after islands, districts, and communities in Fiji. No hierarchy or order was specified.

Despite the early unrealistic, and soon-dampened, expectations, that dialogue went reasonably well. “It was a conversation between people, not between organizations,” said Paula Caballero of the World Resources Institute. Marianne Karlsen from Norway added: “We heard many stories about good opportunities and responsibility. People are changing their behavior, the way they work, the way they think.” And the Ethiopian Gebru Jember Endalew, speaking for the Least Developed Countries, concluded: “Recognizing the untapped potential of non-state actors has been very encouraging.” His initial fears about the format’s degenerating to a talk show had dissipated, he said.

Melting Himalayan lakes ‘are silent tsunamis’

This year, reports from poor countries, already feeling the painful effects of climate change, by and large achieved the emotional quality of good story-telling – tales waiting for a happy ending.

Tshewang Dorji, from the Himalayan state of Bhutan, for example spoke of meltwater lakes that continue to swell as a result of rising temperatures high in the mountains. “They are silent tsunamis,” Dorji said: at any moment the water could rush into settlements below. Bhutanis know well the dangers: one event 20 years ago killed 24 people and countless yaks. The harvest of an entire region was destroyed.

Participants heard points of view that would otherwise not make it to official negotiations. As representative of a company, British Telecom (BT), Gabrielle Ginér called for corporations to set ambitious energy and emission targets based on scientific findings. “At BT, we focus on the 1.5-degree limit and aim to reduce our emissions 87 percent by 2030,” she said. The corporation is swapping 33,000 vehicles and heating systems in many of its buildings, and it demands that its 18,000 suppliers also reduce their energy consumption significantly.

Bridget Burns from WEDO, an international women’s organization, provided a feminine perspective. With the alliteration of many “f”s, she campaigned for a feminist, fossil-free future in which women could engage in fierce, fearless, and frank conversations about solutions to what she clearly denounces as a climate crisis.

That future is still a long way off, she said, even in supposedly progressive equal opportunity states: in the U.S., women land only 20 percent of jobs the renewable energy sector offers.

For most of these reports shared in Bonn this past spring, it was the tone that best fits the Talanoa format: The sessions were not series of lectures, but long conversations, even when hardly any narrative was offered. Many participants squeezed in the word “story” by rebranding their “scenarios” and “histories.”

Continuing process of sharing stories, building empathy and trust, and inspiring action on climate.

Occasionally, however, participants at least told anecdotes. The California envoy, Lauren Sanchez, for instance, embedded her state’s environmental policy in her personal family history. “When my father grew up in Los Angeles, he could not see the mountains because of the smog.” Many children had asthma before the state began to enforce strict air quality rules. For her part, she suffered constant headaches this past year because of severe forest fires – climate change having prolonged the season and increased the dangers. In light of her state’s decisions, she now says she hopes “my children will be able to see the wonderful mountains, and my grandchildren will no longer live in a place that’s burning all the time.”

For Bahamas, one foot means 80 percent flooding

Finally, Philipp Weech of the Bahamas presented his story of one foot and 210 feet. He had struck a pose for his tale, sitting straight with his right ankle on the left knee. “The 210 feet, that’s the highest point of the Bahamas, Mount Alvernia, 63 meters. And the one foot, that’s the length of my shoes,” here he pointed downwards, “and sea-level rise in the last century.” Because of it, the Bahamas had to buy expensive equipment to process increasingly salty groundwater; moreover, storm damages account for hundreds of million dollars practically every year.

“If this continues, soon we will literally not be able to go anywhere. If we don’t act together,” Weech said, “my one foot means 80 percent of my country will be flooded in the next century.”

As Weech told his tale, the head of the German delegation, Nicole Wilke of the Ministry of Environment, sat opposite him. “It was an emotional experience,” she later said of the stories she had heard. “I have experienced many of the other countries’ negotiators before, usually we spar about details. But now I’ve seen them differently, and have learned about challenges they already face at national level.”

Praise for the Talanoa dialogue in Bonn, it seems, was not merely polite and expedient remarks by experienced climate diplomats. Instead, it recognized the innovation Fiji has established at the climate conferences.

The designated head of the upcoming summit COP24 in Katowice, Polish State Secretary Michał Kurtyka, said the Talanoa dialogue had relayed “fascinating experiences from the real world, but also human emotions,” and had “created a space to share stories, build empathy and trust, and inspire action. We need to continue this process.”

Christopher Schrader is a German science journalist living in Hamburg, Germany.