Opinion

Talanoa and the Pacific dialogue on climate change

“The Talanoa Dialogue, based on the Pacific concept of “talanoa” – 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 learn from shared experiences and to imbibe lessons for the collective good (UNFCCC, 2018); an exercise that is generating constructive collaborations and renewed enthusiasm within the climate action process.”

High tides cause a coconut tree to fall into the sea on Kadavu Island in Fiji. Image by Ethan Daniels. Sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID: 173319071.

In a significant and perhaps symbolic eventuation, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) convened by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for 2017-2018, was presided over by Fiji; the first developing island nation to ever do so. While the discourse on climate change has recently widened to include the particular challenges faced by small island developing states (SIDS) (UNDP, 2017) the urgency and desperation felt by many of the SIDS is often diluted by the realpolitik that has come to define the nature of climate action conferences and negotiations.

Overseeing the formal negotiating process on behalf of the Fiji Presidency as well as the incoming Fiji High Commissioner to Australia, is Luke Daunivalu (see image below), who has had considerable experience with the processes of the UNFCCC on Climate Change both in a leading role at the Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations and as a member of the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee for the five years prior. Daunivalu explains for many of the stakeholders from the larger international community including governments, civil society groups and private sector organisations, there is a deep understanding of the need to address the root causes of climate change. However, this cognisance often falls short of the sympathetic awareness needed to appreciate the practicalities of the pressing challenges faced by island nations.

Luke Daunivalu at the UN Climate Change Conference. Image by UNFCC, sourced via Flickr.

One of the key outcomes of COP 23 is the Talanoa Dialogue, based on the Pacific concept of “talanoa” – 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 learn from shared experiences and to imbibe lessons for the collective good (UNFCCC, 2018); an exercise that is generating constructive collaborations and renewed enthusiasm within the climate action process, says Daunivalu. However, the announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement casts an inevitable shadow on the talanoa spirit, with detrimental implications for the climate action process overall and even more so for smaller island nations such as Fiji. Despite this obvious setback, climate optimists like Daunivalu, maintain unrelenting faith in the transformative agency that the talanoa process delivers to its participants and continue to encourage engagement through this crucial and necessary dialogue.

Another key achievement of COP 23 was the finalisation of the first ever Gender Action plan (UN Women, 2017), which aims to increase the participation of women in all UNFCCC processes and increase awareness and support for the implementation of a more gender-responsive climate policy. Considering that many of the individuals and communities most vulnerable to climate change are also often the most marginalised voices, one cannot help but wonder if a reappraisal of current perspectives can ever disentangle climate action strategies from the welter of politically and economically driven policies that prevail in the present day. Daunivalu surmises that any approach that finds positive resonance within the international community, be it political or through increased sensitivity to the environmental justice aspect of climate change, should be encouraged. He further stresses the imperative of diversity and the need to include the youth, people with disabilities, minority and impoverished communities, women and the elderly; all of whom are present in every nation and are often at the frontlines of severe weather events.

Unsurprisingly, many of the disagreements during climate action negotiations tend to divide the industrialised, developed nations of the world and the emerging, developing nations. For small island nations such as Fiji, the negotiation of such contested spaces without capitulating its interests requires a unique tenacity of spirit. “It is not an easy thing to do, countries have their own priorities” says Daunivalu. He further explains that for Fiji, as a leader in the South Pacific, the approach has always been one of inclusiveness and working together with other island nations and developing nation parties alike. For Daunivalu, this is just a starting point and he is quick to point out that a critical objective is for this gap and the divide, that seeks to always be imposed between the developed, industrialised nations with the developing nations, to be closed. “We need to get over our traditional negotiating positions and find common solutions.” He concedes, that one of the key challenges for climate action is the reconciliation of the multiplicity of perspectives and positions, often resulting in a tedious, laboured process.

Understandably, the protracted nature of these conferences and negotiations have been a cause of frustration for many, including critics of large-scale UN conferences like the UNFCCC on Climate Change (Halle, 2016). Daunivalu argues that the conferences offer a critical platform for engagement and that until we can devise better alternatives, disengagement and isolation pose a far greater risk than the current pace of action. As a key participant to these conferences, Daunivalu remains optimistic and maintains that regular meetings facilitate greater transparency about individual national contributions and allows for a critical awareness of progress towards fulfillment of the objectives of the convention.

Perhaps, the most striking aspect of climate action policies is the dichotomy of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on different parts of the world and the perceived need to coalesce these differences into a single ‘humanity’ that can then be afforded the agency to tackle the challenges of climate change. This contradiction is further complicated when the disproportionality lies not just within the impacts but also in the populations engendering anthropogenic climate change in the first place. The current climate, political and otherwise, requires serious contemplation of these contradictions before we are engulfed by the overwhelming circumstances of our existence.

References 

United Nations. (2017). “Small Island Nations at the Frontline of Climate Action.” The United Nations Development Programme (September 2017). Access here.   
United Nations. (2017). “UN Climate Change Conference – November 2017.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Access here
United Nations. (2018). “2018 Talanoa Dialogue Platform.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Access here.  
United Nations. (2017). “First-Ever Gender Action Plan to Support Gender-Responsive Climate Action Adopted” United Nations Women (November 14, 2017). Access here.
Halle, M. (2016). “Life after Rio: A Commentary by Mark Halle, IISD.” International Institute for Sustainable Development (January 17, 2016). Access here.


Sulagna Basu is a postgraduate student of International Relations with an interest in investigating the substantive issues that lie at the intersection of technology, security studies and world politics. She is currently a research intern at the Fiji Consulate and Trade Commission, Sydney. Prior to commencing her studies, she has completed a Master of Science degree in Information and Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine and subsequently worked for several years in the technology sector at various multinational corporations.

Luke Daunivalu is the current Fiji High Commissioner to Australia. High Commissioner Daunivalu brings with him to the role more than 20 years of experience working in the national and international arena. As Chief Negotiator for Fiji’s COP 23 Presidency, he successfully led the negotiations on climate finance at the Bonn session in November 2017, which included taking the important next step to ensure that the Adaptation Fund “shall serve the Paris Agreement”. H.E. Daunivalu continues to take charge of the climate advocacy work under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.