The Importance of Storytelling in Increasing Climate Awareness

Speakers offered tips for effective communication at the Planet Forward Summit.

April 11, 2022

Arati Kumar-Rao and Frank Sesno

Keynote speaker Arati Kumar-Rao appeared virtually. Frank Sesno is at right. (GW Today/William Atkins)

By Greg Varner

What’s the best way to increase public awareness, civic engagement, and empathy around sustainability and the climate crisis? At a recent summit hosted by Planet Forward, a project of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA), the answer was clear: The best way to involve people is through effective storytelling.

The format of Planet Forward Summit, held Thursday in Jack Morton Auditorium, combined an awards ceremony with inspirational remarks by many guests, each speaking briefly. The project’s founder, Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for SMPA, served as host and chief conversationalist for the event, which attracted students from more than 80 campuses.

“I won’t mince words,” Sesno said in his introductory remarks. “We are in peril.”

Acknowledging that the climate crisis is complicated by other crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the scourge of disinformation, Sesno said we must also recognize that there are inspiring stories to tell, of research, intervention and progress. “Through stories,” he said, “we mobilize, we understand, and we empathize.”

GW President Mark S. Wrighton offered welcoming remarks, saying that the GW community is “committed to building a better world.” He mentioned extreme weather events, record heat, floods and droughts as “urgent warnings that we must act on using all the science and creativity we can muster.”

Chef and humanitarian José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, uses his culinary talent to feed people in crisis and is currently aiding refugees from Ukraine. The creator of a sustainability course at GW called World on a Plate, Andrés appeared virtually for an interview with the course’s co-teacher Tara Scully, associate professor of biology and director of GW’s sustainability minor program.

“In the richest country in the history of mankind, we have a huge population that is food insecure,” Andrés said, adding that this is a problem we know how to solve, though we lack the political will. “We must make politicians understand they’re here to serve us.”

Jocelyn Brown Hall, director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in North America, said there is not enough discussion of agriculture, seeds and livestock in connection to conflicts around the world. “Agriculture touches every single solitary aspect of a person’s life 24/7,” she said.

The late Tom Lovejoy, known as the godfather of biodiversity and a Planet Forward advisory council member since 2017, was remembered in a short film depicting his work in the Brazilian rainforest. “You tell stories by going there and by taking people with you,” Sesno said, citing Lovejoy as an exemplary scientist, advocate and storyteller.

“The way we tell food stories most effectively is to get personal, to find someone we can relate to,” Sesno said, “and to let them tell their story in their own words.”

Several speakers testified to the importance of inviting diverse voices into discussions of the environment and policy. Communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as Black and Indigenous communities, are least often given a place at the table when climate solutions are discussed. If recognized at all, they are typically viewed as victims rather than resources who could propose or contribute to solutions.

“We cannot solve the climate crisis without the perspectives of the people who haven’t been in the room,” said Matt Scott, B.B.A. ’14, manager of storytelling and engagement for Project Drawdown, a resource for climate solutions.

Sesno announced a new initiative with the University of Arizona (UA) to launch the Planet Forward Indigenous Students Correspondent Project. Two Indigenous graduate students—Alexander Cotnoir from GW and JoRee LaFrance from UA—designed the new project. They joined Sesno on stage to speak about bringing Indigenous students together to learn from one another and pursue environmental stories that affect their communities.

A keynote address by Arati Kumar-Rao, a National Geographic Explorer, touched on the slow violence of climate change and environmental migrants. She asked the audience to imagine living on the banks of the Ganges River in India when water levels rise dangerously.

“Stories have power to illuminate the interdependencies within a biogeographic region,” Kumar-Rao said, “and thus to help frame policies.”

After announcing that GW will be hiring a new faculty member as the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media, Sesno again spoke of the importance of effective storytelling.

“We have to tell stories better,” Sesno said. “We are flooded with so much information, so much media, so much attitude, so much conflict, so much disinformation.”

As a part of the summit, Planet Forward’s eighth annual Storyfest competition recognized the best student storytelling of the year in various categories such as “Most Compelling Character” and “Best Use of Science and Data.” Five prizewinners were awarded an experiential learning expedition to Alaska with Storyfest sponsor Lindblad Expeditions. Two GW students were among the five prizewinners: Jennifer Cuyuch for Plantita Power: Microgreens in the District and Farzona Comnas for her essay, How Trees Can Save a Drowning Desert.

When audience members were invited to suggest topics for future investigations, several ideas were presented including industrial agriculture, the connections between climate and housing, and the power of artworks to engage people on climate issues.