After more than a quarter-century of regular meetings to tackle the biggest problem currently facing humanity, the United Nations finds itself treading fresh ground this week — bringing renewed hope for radical climate action.
This week’s meeting is the first to embody the Talanoa Dialogues, an approach led by Fiji to rethink the process of international climate negotiations. (Fiji is the meeting’s official host, but talks are taking place in Bonn, Germany to try to reduce emissions from delegates’ travel.) Representatives from nearly every country on Earth are there to hash out the details of coordinating global climate policy.
It’s no easy task. In fact, this is the 48th such follow-up meeting to a treaty first agreed at the Earth Summit in 1992 in Brazil. Since then, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen sharply, from about 356 parts per million to the 411 ppm recorded last month. Despite all that talk and all our efforts, the problem is only getting worse — and at a quicker rate each year.
So what’s the answer? Fiji’s representatives think a more inclusive process would be a good start. “We are all in the same canoe, and an effective response to climate change must involve every single person on Earth,” said the island country’s chief negotiator, Luke Daunivalu.
In its first official update on global progress on climate action since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the United Nations said last week that the current diplomatic impasse would lead to warming of more than 3 degrees Celsius. That, said Daunivalu, “would be a catastrophe for all humankind.”
Fiji’s plan is ambitious. It’s designed to ratchet up climate action in line with meeting the Paris Agreement’s stated goals of striving for a world where global warming is held to just 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. In this spirit, talking to each other face-to-face, like actual humans, could be enough to develop a shared vision of a world that, at last, works for everyone.
“It is crucial that these conversations now turn into action on the ground, and result in greater political momentum from governments that leaves no one behind,” says Gebru Jember Endalew, the Ethiopian chair of the Least Developed Countries group, in a email to Grist.
In the Talanoa Dialogues, countries, businesses, cities, scientists, and non-governmental organizations will all meet in person as equals — previously, official negotiations only involved government representatives. The process is centered around personal storytelling to build empathy and trust and aimed at answering three overarching questions, guided by the harsh reality of the science in meeting the 1.5 degree goal: Where are we, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?
The first trial run of this style of negotiation was held Sunday, and met with immediate praise by representatives of countries on the front lines of climate change. Much like translating a weather forecast from impenetrable jargon to plain, urgent language, the dialogues (at least so far) are making the reality of climate change more tangible by introducing delegates to people suffering from it.
“This is the vision the world agreed to in Paris,” said David Paul, environment minister of the Marshall Islands, in a letter posted on Twitter.
The world’s least developed countries have emerged as a powerfully united negotiating bloc in recent years, helping to craft the Paris Agreement to be as ambitious as possible. The trouble is, rich countries like the United States and Germany have pledged less than 10 percent of what’s needed to help fund adaptation to climate change in poorer countries.
Lack of money is the main immediate impediment to bolder action, especially for the countries that didn’t create the problem. Poorer countries simply can’t do this on their own. The money to help protect poorer countries from the increases in extreme weather already taking place will have to come from airlines, oil companies and other polluting industries as well as richer countries that are already well on their way to reducing emissions.
“[1.5 degrees] seems to be a very difficult goal today.” says Anirban Ghosh, who represented the Indian corporation Mahindra at the dialogues, in an email to Grist. “But if we do all that we can do today and keep talking to each other in the Talanoa spirit, we will find our way there.”
At some point, the world will need to rally behind a way of getting things done very different from the official and sluggish U.N. process. The Talanoa Dialogues may at least be a starting point for figuring that out.
Fiji and other island nations are already playing a leading role. If humanity makes it through the next 80 years intact, it will be in large part thanks to the tireless efforts of some of the smallest nations on Earth.