Talanoa Dialogue: a new approach to global decision making or a rebranding of business as usual?

Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji and across the Pacific to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills and experience through storytelling.”

The Paris Agreement is built around a set of long-term goals and nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to the delivery of those goals; however, it is widely acknowledged that the current NDCs won’t get us to the long-term goals. The idea of the Talanoa Dialogue is to invite Parties, non-Party stakeholders and expert institutions to contribute their ideas to a stocktaking of efforts to achieve the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, and to inform future revisions of the NDCs. The Talanoa Dialogue is divided into a preparatory and political phase and will conclude at COP24. The essential questions guiding the dialogue are ‘Where do we want to go?’, ‘Where are we?’ and ‘How do we get there?’.

The mandate for the Talanoa Dialogue comes from decision 1/CP.21 by the COP, to convene a facilitative dialogue among Parties. The Talanoa Dialogue in its current format was welcomed by the conclusions of COP23 (2017, Bonn) and launched in January 2018.

Stakeholders were invited to submit contributions to the dialogue, and by 2nd April 2018, 220 contributions had been submitted. Civil society, academia and research organisations accounted for half of the submissions, and mixed partnerships, the private sector each accounted for around 15% of the submissions, and in total 49 Parties submitted 15 inputs, some individual and some collective.

On the global climate scene, non-state actors have increasingly taken a more prominent role in the decision-making process. As argued by Kuyper et al.,[1] this can be seen both from the role of non-state actors leading up to Paris, but also in the formal and informal role given to non-state actors under the Paris Agreement. Following the failure to conclude an ambitious, comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, states started to look for new, more flexible ways to approach the climate negotiations. One result has been to involve non-state actors increasingly in the UNFCCC process.

Although this expansion of the formal role of non-state actors could complicate an already difficult and sometimes ponderous process, it is now seen by many as a way of increasing the resilience of the system through enhanced representation, accountability and legitimacy. This involvement complements the more flexible “hybrid” approach of the Paris Agreement, which has a more “bottom up”, iterative philosophy than the previous Kyoto Protocol. And the argument that this enhances resilience has already had some empirical backing, as the strong commitments to combat climate change by parts of the US private sector, cities and states at COP23 demonstrate. And even where civil society faces a less extreme challenge than is posed by the US announcement of intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the increasing pressure exercised by NGOs and civil society organisations on Parties ahead of the COPs can help deliver the sort of trickle-up governance that Céline Charveriat mentioned in an earlier post.

The Talanoa Dialogue can be seen as the most concrete effort to involve non-state actors in the formal decision-making process of the UNFCCC to date. Although the outcomes will not be binding in any sense, the result should be used to inform the revision of NDCs by all Parties. The UNFCCC secretariat will produce synthesis reports and Parties will have the opportunity to respond to the key messages that have emerged from the process and detail their plans for moving forward at a high-level political event at COP24. The hope is that the year-long process can develop political momentum to encourage political action and ambition, but also engagement and ownership across a wide range of stakeholders.

It is not yet clear how engaged Parties will be in enabling a fully inclusive Talanoa Dialogue; or how easy it will be to get comprehensive civil society engagement. Parties and non-Party stakeholders were “invited to cooperate in convening local, national, regional or global events in support of the dialogue.” Some high profile events are already planned, such as this coming September’s Global Climate Action Summit in California, which promises to “mobilise the voices and experience of real people, in real communities already facing real and stark threats”. Regional events such as the EU for Talanoa conference have been organised and cities are holding a large number of events.  

This is a unique moment in time where momentum could build to form a new picture of cooperation on the global climate scene and a commitment to the common process. Crucially, the Talanoa Dialogue will test whether a bottom-up approach can deliver both the greater urgency and ambition that is needed and greater societal ownership of the process and hence resilience. An optimistic reading is that engaging civil society, and ensuring that climate targets are seen as the result of a process of broad dialogue rather than imposed internationally or by national governments, can make it easier for Governments to do the right thing and take early action. There is also an argument relating to the storytelling element of Talanoa: sharing stories and engaging in a dialogue across traditional divisions can in itself have an added value by easing the process of decision-making and creating mutual understanding.

But much depends on the concrete outcomes and the political phase of the dialogue. For now, the participation has been healthy; how this input will be taken on board and more importantly transformed into concrete results and increased ambition remains to be seen.

It is a major step forward to invite such a broad range of stakeholders to participate, and the potential positive outcomes are many.

But the engagement needs to be genuine; and the efforts, participation and energy that result need to be taken into account in the political process in a structured way to ensure it fulfills its potential. And we have to make it work; there isn’t enough time for the international community to reinvent the process if discussion leads to timid consensus rather than bold action.



[1] Kuyper, Jonathan W., Linnér, Björn-Ola, and Heike Schroeder. (2018) Non-state actors in hybrid global climate governance: justice, legitimacy, and effectiveness in a post-Paris era. WIREs Climate Change. doi: 10.1002/wcc.497