The Talanoa Approach In Tomkins County, New York

On October 3, 2018, the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions (CICSS) and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) held a Talanoa Dialogue in Ithaca, New York, USA, home of Cornell University.

The local Talanoa Dialogue was largely driven by a newly developed course taught at Cornell University titled Global Climate Change Science and Policy. Students from the course organized the local Talanoa Dialogue, a public event, on the evening of October 3, 2018.

Community members, students and faculty members from Cornell attended the event. During the process, Ithaca and Tompkins County community residents shared stories of how climate change has affected them. The team recorded the participant responses and took notes during the meeting. In addition to the in-person discussion, the student team circulated an online version of the questions and captured thoughts from individuals who were unable to attend the event.

Tompkins County is located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, in the central part of the state. The region is known for its natural beauty, which consists of lakes, waterfalls, gorges, farms and the burgeoning wine industry. Tompkins County is 492 square miles with a population of 103,600. Roughly half of the county’s population lives in the urbanized center, which is the City of Ithaca, surrounded by a small amount of suburban development. The remainder of the county is largely made up of rural towns, with farmlands, woodlands and several villages and hamlets. Cornell University and Ithaca College are the main drivers of the county’s economy.

The dialogue formed around the three basic questions used worldwide:

Where are we?
Where do we want to go?
How will we get there?

After the dialogue, the Cornell students analyzed the responses provided by community members. A majority of the participants are actively involved in climate action within their county and therefore may have a greater awareness of climate change and local impacts compared to the average citizen.

Dr. Allison Chatrchyan, the director of CICSS, holds a Ph.D. in global environmental politics, and said the talanoa approach is very close to the focus-group methodology used in social sciences. She said, “Focus groups can reveal a wealth of detailed information and deep insight. When well executed, a focus group creates an accepting environment that puts participants at ease, allowing them to thoughtfully answer questions in their own words and add meaning to their answers. Surveys are good for collecting information about people’s attributes and attitudes, but if you need to understand things at a deeper level, then use a focus group.”

The COP23 Presidency asked Dr. Chatrchyan to tell us about the Tomkins County experience.

Q. How has your organisation adopted the Pacific approach of talanoa, which is based on sharing stories to build consensus and make decisions for the collective good?

A. The Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions (CICSS) in coordination with the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) adopted the Talanoa approach as a way to facilitate communication and shared understanding among community members and local organizations. Our local Talanoa Dialogue was intended to share what we are experiencing here with climate change, build local connections to the global process, and put pressure on governments and NGOs to increase their actions on climate change.

Q. How did the participants at your event react to this approach?

A. We think it ended up working very well. We didn’t know how many people would come to the public meeting, and were planning for 50 with many large tables, but we ended up with a smaller group, so we combined into one circular table. This allowed for a much more deep and rich discussion.

Q. Why did your organisation choose to participate in the Talanoa Dialogue? Why do you believe this process it is important, and what role do you see it playing in the global effort to combat climate change?

A. When I first learned about the Talanoa Dialogue process, I had the idea to hold one in our local community, which has done so much at the local level to address climate change. We saw the great potential opportunities it creates for sharing stories and building connections. The structure of the Talanoa Dialogue is both simple and meaningful, and it allows for active involvement from all participants. This type of discussion is greatly needed on the global stage. The Talanoa Dialogue process gives everyone’s voice the opportunity to be heard. The global fight against climate change will only be solved if people have an equal opportunity to share their stories and perspectives about how climate change is affecting them right now, and the need for greater action.

Q. What do you see as the next step for the Talanoa Dialogue?

CICSS would like to work with the COP FIJI presidency to conduct thorough social-science analysis of the Talanoa Process and submissions. I would like the COP to support additional meaningful dialogues with smaller communities around the globe. Cornell could help partner with the COP and the Government of Fiji to conduct online training on how to conduct the focus groups with communities, like we did in Ithaca.

Key Takeaways from your Talanoa

Q. What are the key messages and takeaways from your Talanoa?

A. Three key messages came out of the Talanoa Dialogue:

1. Engage more communities and rural residents
2. Build stronger connections between actions at the local and state policies
3. Engage youth and minorities

These three takeaways all center around the idea of connection and communication, both of which are meant to be facilitated in the Talanoa framework.

Q. Give us examples of some of the stories you have collected through your Talanoa.

A. Here are some meaningful local stories.

The Newfield Flash Floods of 2015:

“Newfield is a small, rural hamlet located just ten miles outside Ithaca. It experienced severe flash floods in June 2015 as a result of 4-inch (10.4 cm) rainfall in one night. A state of emergency was declared, many people had to be temporarily evacuated and homes were destroyed. The town lacked the capacity to handle the situation, and stagnant water caused further damage. Many of the affected houses were not in the designated floodplain and did not have flood insurance to support repairs. In addition to the private property damages, local officials estimated a cost of approximately $1.5 million to repair public infrastructure in Newfield and the surrounding areas. This event not only posed a huge burden on the annual budget of the small town to reinstate the public services, but also left many homes devastated.”

Q. What is the main message you want to deliver to the political leaders who will gather at COP24 in Poland?

A. Climate Change is ALREADY affecting people and communities globally, with devastating consequences for biodiversity, ecological systems and human beings.

Tompkins County has already experienced significant effects of climate change over the past few decades. It has seen an average temperature increase of 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit (.11°C) per decade since 1950, and an even greater increase since 1980, of 0.6°F (.33°C) per decade.

The average annual precipitation in Tompkins has increased 0.8 inches (2.03 cm) per decade since 1950 and 1.8 inches (4.57 cm) per decade since 1980. In addition to an increase in overall precipitation, there has been a 71% increase in heavy rainfall events in the Northeast as compared to other areas of the country.

Tompkins County has accomplished a lot of very good work on climate change locally – including several excellent initiatives and community engagement. But we have challenges too.

We strongly encourage our County, City of Ithaca, and communities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Accord. We also encourage all Parties to the Paris Accord to reduce emissions as fast as possible to reach the goal of 2°C; and provide greater capacity- building for local governments and support for local mitigation and adaptation projects.