EPA chief and GW alumnus Michael Regan joined NBC’s Al Roker and GW President Thomas LeBlanc as speakers at the 2021 Planet Forward Virtual Summit.
By John DiConsiglio
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Michael S. Regan, M.P.A. ‘04, promised a renewed focus on science-based climate policy, and legendary broadcaster Al Roker emphasized the role of journalism in energizing public sentiment on sustainability issues at the 2021 Planet Forward Summit, a virtual forum celebrating the power of environmental storytelling.
The remote summit also featured a video segment with George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc, who reiterated the university’s commitment to eliminate single-use plastics on campus.
The theme of this year’s summit was “urgency, action and inclusion,” reflecting an enhanced environmental focus from policymakers, businesses and advocates, noted Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA). Mr. Sesno is the founder of Planet Forward, a project of SMPA.
The summit featured live and recorded panels and interviews along with remote break-out sessions that covered topics from framing narratives around climate change to addressing issues of environmental equity and inclusion. “Unless this is an inclusive conversation, unless the stories we tell are stories that represent all communities, we will not succeed—because climate change happens to everybody,” Mr. Sesno said.
In a conversation with Mr. Sesno, EPA’s Mr. Regan, an alumnus of the GW’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, promised to “reinject science” into federal climate policy. “Under my leadership, we’re going back to doing what we do best, which is relying on science, facts and data,” he said.
In pursuing the Biden administration’s stated goal to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Mr. Regan said he would not hesitate to hold large scale companies accountable for their contributions to climate change—relying on “enforcement, enforcement, enforcement” of regulations like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. “The realities are we have statutory authority…to impose certain penalties for those who don’t follow the rules of the road,” he said.
The first Black man and only the second person of color to lead the agency in its 50-year history, Mr. Regan echoed the administration’s vow to put environmental justice at the forefront of climate policy, citing the establishment of the new advisory White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. He also stressed the importance of incorporating young people’s voices into climate conversations. “When I think about the power and the intensity that young people are bringing to this issue, it’s really inspiring,” he said.
Mr. Roker, the veteran weather anchor on NBC’s “Today” and a leader of the network’s reporting unit on climate change, spoke with Mr. Sesno about crafting compelling environmental narratives that resonate with audiences. Whether reporting on rapidly melting glaciers in Greenland or telling the stories of “climate refugees” forced to leave their threatened homes and livelihoods in Alaska, Mr. Roker said he tries to engage viewers who may not believe climate issues affect their daily lives. “We have to make these stories relatable to everybody because it’s not just an issue of climate,” he said. “It’s an issue of human rights as well.”
Veteran weather anchor Al Roker discussed environmental storytelling at the virtual summit.
As a journalist, Mr. Roker said he emphasizes fact-based reporting, but also cautioned against bombarding audiences with negative stories. “The idea is to give folks the information they can use to make a decision and take some sort of action,” he said. In his own reporting, Mr. Roker said he has tried to accent climate victories, like wind farms that generate both clean energy and job opportunities.
Later in the summit, Dr. LeBlanc spoke about the university’s plan to eliminate single-use plastics as part of its long term sustainability strategy. Crediting the collaboration with the student organization Take Back the Tap and the leadership of Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz, who convened a Single-Use Plastics Task Force in September 2020, Dr. LeBlanc outlined GW’s blueprint for curtailing plastics on campus, including barring single-use plastics from vending machines, events, dining and departmental purchases.
“GW is trying to lead in sustainability, and I don’t think we can lead in sustainability while we’re daily churning out single-use plastic on campus,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We need to role model life without single-use plastics.”
Other summit speakers included National Geographic Explorer and filmmaker John Sutter, who spoke with SMPA Associate Director Imani M. Cheers about his new documentary project following the impact of climate change on children in four locations through the year 2050. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) discussed how her city, dubbed the hottest in America with 145 days of 100-degree weather in 2020, is implementing new urban technologies to address the dangers of extreme heat. She also encouraged students to consider nontraditional career paths in combatting the climate crisis.
“Some of the…most effective communicators and most helpful in making policy come from all sorts of different backgrounds,” she said, noting her partnerships with faith communities, business entrepreneurs, elected officials and volunteer leaders. “You can really make a difference from any career path. Having the knowledge and the motivation is what counts.”
Mr. Sesno also announced the winners of Storyfest, the annual Planet Forward competition highlighting student-generated environmental stories.
Francesca Edralin, a junior in the GW Elliott School of International Affairs, won in the “Most Compelling Character” category for her article, “Meet Cameroon’s ‘plastic man’: The story of environmental activist Forbi Perise.”
The six grand prize winners each receive $500 and have 50 trees planted in their names in a national forest courtesy of the nonprofit One Tree Planted.
In addition to Ms. Edralin, the other winners were:
Best Science Narrative: Eva Legge, Dartmouth College, “The salamanders at the end of the world.”
Most Creative Story: Calvin Bordas, SUNY-ESF, “Airborne microplastics in the age of COVID-19.”
Best Use of Science or Data: Christopher Howley and Michael Hannon, Arizona State University, “Diversifying the pack: Cross fostering helps Mexican wolf population boost genetic mix.”
Best Scalable Innovation: Allison Klei, Franklin & Marshall University, “Daylighting: A case study of the Jones Falls River in Baltimore, Maryland.”
Fan Favorite Award: Kenna Q. Kelley, Syracuse University, “Thrifting for the soul.”