We Are All in the Same Canoe

A model of a sailboat Description automatically generated with low confidence

The 2015 Paris climate meetings are usually remembered as highlighting that climate change will increasingly entail horrific damage, upheavals in towns and communities, loss of life, and human tragedy. Yes, all over the globe, we understand this to be the case since we are experiencing some of these horrific events. Yet, the Paris meetings also had another theme that has profound social, political, and economic implications –namely, we are Together in the Same Canoe.

This theme was radical just as it was profoundly democratic. Fijian Frank Bainimarama was president of the 2015 meetings which was especially meaningful because he represented Small Island States that are in great danger of being overtaken by rising seas. These meetings were held as COP 21 (with COP being Conference of the Parties). In fact, COP meetings continue to be held and the next one (COP 28) is scheduled for 30 November – 12 December 2023.[1] Bainimarama’s background is relevant here. He has been prime minister of Fiji since 2007, while Fiji has gone through remarkable transformation involving broad programs of social, economic, electoral, and constitutional reforms, leading up to the establishment of Fiji’s first genuine parliamentary democracy in 2014. Fiji is one of 57 small island developing states, and one of 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which are imperiled low lying countries that are being overtaken by the sea. Already some have disappeared,[2] and the United Nations has expressed alarm about the fate of others.[3]

It is expected – indeed, known – that the heating of the planet will most greatly harm low-lying small island states, even while harming the entire world. There will be climatic upheaval – flooding, unprecedented storms, intense heat, melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, sea rise, desertification, and fires. There will be thousands – indeed, millions – of climate refugees. The exceedingly important questions are: How will humans cope? What will nations do? How will people cooperate across lines of language, ideology, religion? Certainly, the residents of the states that make up AOSIS have thought about such questions as these. At some point, people realize that they must escape, and this is usually at the last minute as the waves of the rising sea overtake their homes. Where will they go? Indeed, people most threatened, specifically people who live on small islands, such as Fiji, have created stories, or myths about this – perhaps as preparation, or perhaps as therapy. One story, often told by Fijians, is they will leave together on a very big canoe or Drua.

Frank Bainimarama and Fijian delegates brought to the Bonn COP conference a large canoe, or Drua – which Bainimarama could use to illustrate collective survival. Below is a photo of the canoe.[4]

By 2015 it had become clear to people around the globe – heads of state, monarchs, law makers, scientists and, increasingly, ordinary citizens – that the earth was heating up at a dangerous pace. In 1994 the United Nations started a yearly conference devoted to understanding and discussing climate change. These meetings were identified as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),[5] which continues as the hub for international meetings on climate change (COP meetings).[6]All States that are Parties to the Convention are represented at the COP, and COP participants review the implementation of the Convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts and take decisions necessary to promote the effective implementation of the Convention,[7]including institutional and administrative arrangements. The COP is the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the UNFCCC. The COP has met annually since 1995 and is primarily focused on the science of climate change although increasingly it deals with the social, cultural, and economic aspects of global heating.[8] Virtually all countries – 197 – have signed on to the Convention and attend annual meetings.

The 21st Session of the COP (COP21), held in Paris, France, in December 2015, was historic in its outcome – the first international climate agreement – the Paris Agreement. Specifically, the Paris Agreement mobilizes the Parties to the Convention in taking action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions with an agreed-upon goal of staying below a global average temperature increase of 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit). The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016 – Earth Day – at UN Headquarters in New York. It entered into force on 4 November 2016. For that reason, COP 23 and COP 24 were especially important.

As concept and practice Talanoa Dialogues were introduced by Frank Bainimarama, president of COP 23 and COP 24. As already noted, he was president of a Small Island State – Fiji – where the inhabitants were realistically fearful of sea rise overtaking families, their homes, and communities. Discussions centering on the Talanoa began at COP 23 and continued through COP 24.[9] Bainimarama introduced Talanoa Dialogues to UN delegates and referred to the importance of their reaching out to business leaders, government representatives, intergovernmental organizations, local governments, environmental NGOs, farmers, trade unions and youth organizations. The aim was to discuss and suggest solutions to the warming of the earth and how the objectives of the Paris Agreement could be achieved.[10] Besides the canoe that Frank Bainimarama and the Fiji delegation brought they also introduced “Talanoa,” which is 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 share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills, and experience through storytelling. Talanoa is the Pacific concept of a process of inclusive, participatory, and transparent dialogue that builds empathy and leads to decision making for the collective good. It is not about finger pointing and laying blame. It is about genuinely listening to each other, learning from each other, sharing stories, skills, and experiences.

Bainimarama’s presidential speech helps to clarify the significance of Talanoa:

“We Must Not Fail Our People” – President’s Opening Speech at COP 23[11]

Bula Vinaka and a very warm welcome to the Bula Zone.[12]

It is a great honour for Fiji to receive the baton from Morocco of the presidency of COP. And assume the responsibility for implementing the Paris Agreement and prepare the way for more ambitious climate action.

From one of the most climate-vulnerable regions on earth, I bring you the greetings of the Fijian people and all Pacific Islanders. And our collective plea for the world to maintain the course we set in Paris.

The need for urgency is obvious. Our world is in distress from the extreme weather events caused by climate change – destructive hurricanes, fires, floods, droughts, melting ice, and changes to agriculture that threaten our food security. All consistent with the science that now tells us that 2016 was a record year for carbon concentrations in the atmosphere.

All over the world, vast numbers of people are suffering – bewildered by the forces ranged against them. Our job as leaders is to respond to that suffering with all means available to us. This includes our capacity to work together to identify opportunities in the transition we must make.

We must not fail our people. That means using the next two weeks and the year ahead to do everything we can to make the Paris Agreement work and to advance ambition and support for climate action before 2020.

To meet our commitments in full, not back away from them. And to commit ourselves to the most ambitious target of the Paris Agreement. To cap the global average temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius over that of the pre-industrial age.

Excellencies, distinguished delegates: By aiming for 1.5 degrees, we are setting ourselves a serious challenge. But it provides us with a mission. It engages our capacity for ingenuity, for organization and sheer hard work. And who knows what we might achieve when humanity’s capacity to innovate is unleashed? What we do know is that if we don’t rise to this challenge, we will definitely fall short and expose our people to more risk. More destruction. More suffering.

That is why Fiji has been so determined to help build a Grand Coalition of governments at every level, civil society, the private sector, and faith-based organizations. And to connect this effort to as many of the 7.5 billion citizens of the planet as possible.

We are not only bringing our Fijian Bula Spirit to Bonn with our cultural performances. We hope to infuse these negotiations with the Pacific Talanoa Spirit of understanding and respect. Because the only way for every nation to put itself first is to lock arms with all other nations and move forward together.

Talanoa helps us to understand that essential truth. And I am very gratified that so many of you have begun referring to the Talanoa Dialogue as the best way to raise ambition and accelerate our response to this challenge.

Also appeal for a lot more resolve to assist the more vulnerable to adapt to climate change. And as President of COP23, we are launching an Ocean Pathway to ensure the ocean is an integral part of our UNFCCC process by 2020.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates: this is our moment of truth – when all of us in this room will be tested. We must not be found wanting.

We are all in the same canoe, which is why we have Drua – a Fijian ocean-going canoe – in the foyer. To remind us of our duty to fill its sail with a collective determination to achieve our mission. So let’s make the hard decisions that have to be made for the sake of ourselves and the generations to come. Let’s use the next two weeks to get the job done.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

Implications: Discussion

As a follow-up, it can be asserted here that during the process of creating democratic cooperation, participants build trust and advance knowledge through empathy and understanding. Blaming others and being hypercritical are inconsistent with this process. Talanoa fosters stability and inclusiveness by creating a safe space discussion and decision making for the greater good.[13] Yes, we “conventional people” will listen to people with radical traditions and radical views – say, anarchists and revolutionists – as well as listen to conservatives – recognizing that everyone wants – and needs – to be rescued from climate chaos. We are all eager to listen and learn. We are equals. We are all human.

In other words, we cannot accept and will not accept inequality. The canoe is too small for that. Capitalism creates boundaries that are unfair and arbitrary, and it is especially adverse to cooperation and egalitarian democracy. Contemporary inequality is staggering and unfair. According to Oxfam International, 26 people own the same as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.[14] None of these 26 people – or any capitalist, for that matter – is demonstrably smarter or more creative than anyone else on the planet. Money, stocks, and possessions have no place in the canoe – our canoe. Bainimarama noted “I am convinced that when we act in the interest of the most vulnerable, we are acting in the interests of us all. Because as I also keep saying, we are all vulnerable and we all need to act.”[15]

Of course, the canoe is a metaphor for global cooperation, and yes, a metaphor for equality and solidarity, and yes, this means cooperation on local, national, and global scales. Existing cooperatives help to set examples. These are associations of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, cultural needs and aspirations through jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprises. They are owned, controlled, and run by and for their members to realize their shared economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations. [16] In the US alone there are 29,000 cooperatives[17] , and 1 billion people are members of cooperatives worldwide.[18] There are 250,000 cooperatives in the EU, owned by 163 million citizens (one third of the EU population) and employing 5.4 million people [19]It is clear that cooperatives are a popular form of organization and that they promote democratic decision-making, and significantly do not yield profits for share-holders but rather return as profits to workers. Large and successful cooperatives include Mondragon in Spain,[20] Housing International,[21] and the International Co-Cooperative Alliance.[22] The support of countries – indeed, the approval of so many countries to the Paris treaty – was nearly unprecedented.[23] Remarkably, President Trump withdrew US approval, although Biden rejoined on January 20, 2021.

The main question to ask is this: is capitalism adverse to the extent and forms of cooperation that are required to slow the pace of global heating? There is one answer: yes, of course. We need cooperation and that of course is based on equalitarianism and participatory democracy.

Did the world’s people not listen to Frank Bainimarama when he so brilliantly clarified the importance of equalitarian, democratic, and participatory processes? To collectively survive the over-heating of the planet, we would best learn something from the principles of Talanoa.


1. https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop. There was virtual universal membership of countries, except for the United States because Trump had announced that the US would withdraw from the global climate treaty.

2. https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/three-islands-disappeared-past-year-climate-change-blame-ncna1015316; https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/are-islands-disappearing; https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/09/09/new-study-finds-8-islands-swallowed-by-rising-sea-level/#5a4d09435283

3. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/small-islands-rising-seas; https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/09/539952-small-island-states-threatened-rising-seas-call-un-general-assembly-urgent

4. https://unfccc.int/news/fijian-canoe-as-symbol-of-resilience-and-unity-displayed-at-cop23

5. https://unfccc.int/

6. https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop

7. https://unfccc.int/gcse?q=COP

8. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/conferences/un-climate-change-dialogues-2020-climate-dialogues

9. https://www.dw.com/en/talanoa-dialogue-giving-everyone-a-voice-in-the-climate-conversation/a-42479711

10. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement/2018-talanoa-dialogue-platform; https://cop23.com.fj/talanoa-dialogue/

11. https://cop23.com.fj/fijian-prime-minister-cop23-president-remarks-assuming-presidency-cop23/

12. Bula is the most common word you’ll hear right across Fiji and it is used to greet people or say hello. When you say bula to someone, you are actually wishing them life.

13. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement/2018-talanoa-dialogue-platform; also see https://cop23.com.fj/talanoa-dialogue/;  

14. https://www.oxfam.org/en/5-shocking-facts-about-extreme-global-inequality-and-how-even-it;

15. https://cop23.com.fj/canoe-comes-experiencing-impacts-climate-change/

16. https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/cooperative-identity

17. https://www.iwdc.coop/why-a-coop/facts-about-cooperatives-1

18. ibid

19. https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/social-economy/cooperatives_en

20. https://www.mondragon-corporation.com/en/about-us/

21. https://www.housinginternational.coop/

22. https://www.ica.coop/en

23. Judith Blau, The Paris Agreement. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.