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ESF Professor Works to Build Community at COP21

Dr. Jack Manno runs workshops at ‘Climate Generations’

When world leaders gathered in Paris in December to put together an unprecedented global climate agreement, ESF Professor Jack Manno was next door, helping people learn to communicate with each other so they can take a grassroots approach to solving the challenge of climate change.

"Our goal was to get people to recognize that we are never going to solve the climate problem unless we address the issues that keep us separate from one another: racism, classism, the oppression of women and male dominance, among many others," he said.

Manno spent 10 days in Paris, organizing and speaking at workshops sponsored by Sustaining All Life, an international grassroots organization that works to end climate change within the context of ending divisions among people. He was one of 58 delegates who attended the event on behalf of the organization. Other participants were indigenous peoples from around the world and residents of nations that included New Zealand, the Philippines, France, England, Norway and Africa.

Manno recently shared his experience with the campus community this semester as part of the Environmental Studies Colloquium Series. The title of his presentation was "From the Earth Summit (1992, Rio) to COP-21 (2015, Paris): One ESF Professor's Quest to get the not-so-United Nations to Tackle the Most Basic Human Causes of Climate Change."

He discussed his work with Sustaining All Life and offered insights into how environmental destruction is deeply connected to oppression and the need to create opportunities for the voices of the oppressed to be heard.

The project Manno worked on in Paris was headquartered in an expansive convention center - the Climate Generations area - that was open to the general public and featured 20 interactive educational exhibitions, film screenings, speakers and space for hundreds of meetings that occurred while the negotiations were underway at COP21, the United Nations climate conference.

In discussing his participation in the international event, Manno points out the environmental and climate movement is predominantly white, middle class and from the "global north," but the people most vulnerable and affected by climate change and environmental degradation are overwhelmingly the people of the "global south." "It's not an accident that the majority of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is historically from white, rich countries and the people that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change are people of the global majority of the world," he said at the colloquium. Environmental organizations would be more effective if they included the leadership of the people most affected, he said, but oppressive patterns of behavior and communication prevent that from happening.

"Our work is based on models of peer listening and key theoretical understanding of how various oppressions operate and how it is possible to heal the rifts between people," Manno said.

In Paris, he spoke at a workshop called, "Reclaiming the World: The Environment and People Raised Poor and Working Class," and organized another session called "Young People at the Forefront of the Climate Movement." He also had a hand in what he called "a whole bunch of ad hoc workshops that happened because of the discussions that were going on."

"We were asked to work with different groups to address the tensions between them that are undermining the capacity of those who work to fight climate change," Manno said. "Our job was to get people to talk to each other."

Participants told stories about how climate change is affecting life in their communities. "Many of them responded to what we were doing by saying, 'Finally someone is listening to us,'" he said.

The sessions put people's experiences - not just scientific data - at the center of the climate change debate. It changes the dynamics, Manno said, when stories build connections among people. "If you are listened to well, you can make progress," he said. "Your mind works better when someone is actually listening to you."

"We were experimenting to see if our presence and our ability to get people to connect with and listen to each other would make a difference," Manno said. "And it seemed to but we had no way to measure that."