As a social scientist at SEI, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the governance dimensions of climate change mitigation: How do policies get made? Whose voices are heard in decision-making? And what motivates governments to take climate action?

So I was excited at the prospect of getting a seat at the Sunday Talanoa Dialogue last month to witness a new approach to governing climate change. The event – named after the Pacific Island tradition of storytelling – featured researchers, activists, government officials, business leaders and others sitting in a circle, face-to-face, sharing their stories about climate change.

Participants were invited to respond to three big questions – “Where are we?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” I was in the room for the second question, where I heard stories about the impacts of sea level rise on small islands, the virtues of energy models as planning tools, and the value of indigenous knowledge and women’s participation. With more than 700 stories told in the Dialogue, practically every aspect of climate change mitigation and adaptation was covered.

The aim of this dialogue is to address a significant problem: despite the landmark step of the Paris Agreement, commitments from individual countries are nowhere near sufficient to limit warming to well below 2⁰C, let alone below 1.5⁰C. The Parties to the UNFCCC hope that by sharing stories in a constructive and open way, countries will find ways to take more ambitious climate action.

Researchers, government officials, business leaders and others participate in the Talanoa Dialogue in Bonn, Germany. Photo: Flickr/UNclimatechange

Appreciating why this Dialogue is unique requires a little understanding of what day-to-day negotiating under the UNFCCC looks like. Now that the Agreement is signed, international meetings are focused on the details of implementation. Discussions revolve around the minutiae of each Article in the Agreement, and negotiators work to ensure their interests are reflected in all of the subsequent guidance and rules. There isn’t a lot of time to step back, take in the landscape, and think about whether and how all the individual actions come together to achieve the collective goal of limiting global warming. The Dialogue provides the necessary space for reflection – an open forum for government representatives, businesses and civil society alike to tell stories and hear about the issues that will define our pathway to meeting the Paris goals.

The Dialogue also provides the opportunity to raise important issues, and bring in new ideas to the table that can help increase global ambition. In that spirit, I spoke about research highlighting the need to align fossil fuel production with the Paris Agreement goals. I had two minutes to sum up years of work – no pressure! – but I came away feeling I had given my fellow Dialogue participants a new view on an important piece of the climate change puzzle. And I was not alone in voicing support for action on fossil fuel supply. Phasing down production – as a complement to reducing fossil fuel demand – is an idea that is spreading, and one that could really help countries boost their commitments under the Agreement.

The Sunday event was just one piece of the broader “Talanoa Dialogue” process. Throughout 2018, the UNFCCC will also collect stories online (the portal is open for new submissions until October – see SEI’s contribution here). A summary of all these stories – along with the IPCC’s special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C – will feed into the “political phase” of the Dialogue at COP 24 in Katowice in December, where high-level government officials will meet to take stock of global climate progress.

Will this moment of reflection, encompassed in the storytelling approach of the Dialogue, ultimately help us change our climate trajectory? We’ll find out when we see how officials respond Katowice. I remain hopeful that the constructive spirit of the Dialogue will translate into political momentum and meaningful commitments. Given we’re still far from where we need to be to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it’s certainly worth experimenting with new governance approaches like the Talanoa Dialogue to try to inspire bolder climate action.