Better Futures for People and the Planet Take Shape at GW

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) was among featured speakers at an event celebrating the university's Alliance for a Sustainable Future.

April 23, 2024

Senator Chris Coons (foreground, in conversation with Frank Sesno) laid out some of the steps federal and local lawmakers are taking toward a sustainable future. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Senator Chris Coons (foreground, in conversation with Frank Sesno) laid out some of the steps federal and local lawmakers are taking toward a sustainable future. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Tools to create energy-efficient cities and decarbonized U.S. Navy ships. Crowdsourced on-the-ground smartphone mapping in the Global South. Health data that empowers local governments to reduce air pollution. These are just three of the projects through which George Washington University faculty are combatting the effects of climate change to build a sustainable future. For U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), hearing about them was a breath of fresh air.

“Those are three great avenues, and when you combine them with the energy and the passion of the students here…you can build what the whole world desperately needs, which is the cadre of believers who will find solutions, demand that they be implemented and then push them, believe them, make them into a part of our being and our future,” Coons told an audience gathered at Lisner Auditorium to celebrate the GW Alliance for a Sustainable Future.

“I can't think of a more important and exciting undertaking [in which] to be a partner, and GW and this alliance [are] going to be a part of that future.”

The Wednesday event convened community members from across the university to recognize work done under the alliance’s umbrella since its launch in November 2023 and to look toward the future. The evening closed with the East Coast premiere of “Sacred Place,” a choral work by composer Alex Berko performed by the George Washington University Singers.

“Achieving sustainability—that is, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs—is an enormous and complex challenge,” GW President Ellen M. Granberg said in opening remarks. “But we are all here tonight because we know that within the most difficult challenges are also the greatest opportunities. At GW, these opportunities lie in our ability to connect our unparalleled proximity to the nation's capital, our relentless pursuit of impact and our talented students, faculty and staff to create a fundamental and lasting change.”

Alliance Executive Director Frank Sesno, also director of strategic initiatives for the School of Media and Public Affairs and founding director of Planet Forward, noted that GW is “going to do is what the country and the world need to do, which is to bring brilliant, insightful, bold, brave, creative thinkers from across disciplines to put their heads together and their hearts together and come up with ideas to drive change—and to accelerate change.”

The GW researchers turning their ambition and energy toward visionary sustainability goals are empowered by donors supporting the Alliance, Sesno said. “We could not do what we’re doing with our research and with our students…without your philanthropic and financial support.”

Coons, who is co-founder and co-chair of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, joined Sesno onstage for a conversation on the pressing seriousness of climate change and the necessity and possibility of bipartisan solutions.

Sesno noted that more and more young people he encounters at GW have personal experience with the effects of climate change, like extreme weather, wildfires and flash floods. Those experiences create an urgency about the climate crisis that some feel isn’t reflected in the pace of the legislative process.

But lawmakers, like the rest of the population, are increasingly aware of their own and their loved ones’ vulnerability to ecological crisis, Coons said. “No senator cares about any lobbyist more than their own children,” he said. “And my children have been blunt with me: ‘Great job leaving us a planet we will barely be able to inhabit.’”

Coons said federal and local governments are taking meaningful steps toward fossil fuel divestment and alternative energy solutions, especially in the past three years. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 invested hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy, the largest financial investment combating climate change by any nation to date.

With fresh ideas developed by people directly involved in their communities, Coons said, even the most seemingly intractable climate problems may be solvable.

“Roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, get out in the field and get to work,” he said. “Balance the idyllic with the practical…Don’t overlook the hands-on, practical experience you can get early at the local level.”

The GW singers closed last week's celebration by performing the East Coast premiere of Alex Berko's choral work, "Sacred Place." (William Atkins/GW Today)
The GW singers closed last week's celebration with a performance of Alex Berko's choral and instrumental work, "Sacred Place," which incorporates writing by environmentalist John Muir and poet Wendell Berry. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Opening the celebration, senior Aleena Fayaz said she and her peers chose GW specifically for its combination of top-tier research and real-world impact.

“One of the reasons my friends and I came to GW was to change the world and be at the forefront of actions and solutions,” Fayaz said. “We understand what it takes to take a change, and while it might be uncomfortable, we need to push ourselves in order to make a difference, whether it be in our transition from fossil fuels, avoiding single use plastics, composting your dinner or buying secondhand clothes.”

Before Coons took the stage, three faculty members engaged with ecological issues joined Provost Christopher Alan Bracey to discuss the big ideas that drive their work at GW. Susan Anenberg, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health and director of the GW Climate and Health Institute, discussed her work bringing to light air pollution’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Saniya LeBlanc of the School of Engineering and Applied Science shared progress on several fronts, including tools to help cities integrate new energy technology, heat-capturing tech that could transform otherwise “wasted” energy into a usable form and an initiative to decarbonize Navy ships by moving the armed forces away from fossil fuel toward new forms of portable power. And David Rain, associate professor of geography and international affairs and chair of geography in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, spoke on empowering young people in the Global South to map their own communities with their smartphones, providing real-time on-the-ground information about the impact of climate change on their own land. With the Alliance for a Sustainable Future as a hub, these and other faculty members have the necessary tools to share and build upon one another’s work.

“This is the definition of an interdisciplinary problem, and we need all hands on deck,” Anenberg said.  

To learn more about how philanthropy can advance GW's new Alliance for a Sustainable Future to support pioneering research and help shape the next generation of climate leaders, please reach out to [email protected].