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Can Fijian story-telling save the planet?

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 February 2018 11:30 GMT

In this 2004 file photo, Fijian fishermen stand in their boats as they work in front of an island's mountain range near Suva. REUTERS/David Gray DG/CP

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate negotiators have begun the Talanoa Dialogue - a process of Fijian-style story-telling - but will it help countries curb emissions fast?

Fiji is leading the world’s climate negotiators in a process rarely experienced outside the Pacific before. It’s inviting them to use a form of story-telling called “talanoa” to find solutions to global warming. 

A diverse range of people - from European Union officials to civil society - will meet in May to share their experiences in small groups, each one moderated by a Fijian who’s grown up using talanoa

Countries, businesses, investors, cities, regions and non-governmental organisations are also invited to submit their stories and ideas online. 

This is no cosy swapping of yarns around a camp fire, though. There is a lot at stake. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and current national plans to cut emissions are projected to take global warming to about 3 degrees. 

That’s far above the 1.5 degrees being pursued by Fiji and other small island nations that are experiencing rising sea levels, more severe storms and other effects of climate change. Under the Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries committed to keeping global temperatures to well below 2 degrees. 

The participants in the Talanoa Dialogue will tackle three questions: Where we are now, where do we want to go, and how do we get there? 

Fiji, which is president of the U.N. climate talks until it hands over to Poland in December, hopes the conversation will create the safe space it says is needed to get the best results. 

“This is story-telling with a purpose ... where the journey is as important as the destination,” Fiji's chief climate negotiator, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, told a briefing this week. 


Building trust and empathy are crucial elements of that process, which aims to reach a decision for the collective good. 

“Trust, respect, recognition of the need for urgency and a dose of humour are really things that make talanoa work in the Pacific,” Khan said. 

 “Of course the test is: Is this going to work for everyone?” 

In Fiji, speaking through personal stories is a way of resolving everything from what to do about an errant group of teenagers, to how a village can recover from a natural disaster. 

But can it succeed in helping countries curb global warming - and fast? 

“I think there is a sense that the Talanoa Dialogue is going to be a path which, although challenging at first because of its strangeness, is a path that ultimately might work to advance this multilateral conversation,” Khan said. 

It’s a form of dialogue “which tells the world that we really can’t work on the urgency of climate action unless we do it together”, said Khan. “It’s about putting people first.” 

The dialogue will continue throughout the year. A summary of the online submissions and discussions will be presented to world leaders. 

Paula Caballero, global director of climate at the World Resources Institute, said negotiators at the annual U.N. climate talks in December need to not only get the rules right to underpin the Paris Agreement, but also send clear signals they are ready to raise the ambition of their national climate commitments by 2020. 

“A central component of the Talanoa Dialogue is to set the stage for this conversation about how to strengthen climate action and seize the substantial economic and social development benefits those actions can bring,” she said.

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