Planet Forward Summit Returns to GW with Theme ‘Solutions for Survival’

The 2024 Planet Forward Summit will highlight how creativity and storytelling can help in the urgent search for solutions to the climate crisis.

March 28, 2024

2024 Planet Forward Summit

The annual Planet Forward Summit, which convenes experts, storytellers, and students from universities across the country passionate about protecting the environment, is returning to the George Washington University for its 11th year on April 18 and 19.

This year’s theme, “Solutions for Survival,” emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis and the role students can play in creating meaningful change by producing work that will lead to innovative solutions and inspire hope for the future.

Frank Sesno, the founder of Planet Forward at the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) and the executive director of  the new GW Alliance for a Sustainable Future, said this year’s conference will put students together with media professionals who have been using powerful storytelling to highlight efforts that are moving the planet forward.

This year’s conference will feature a great line-up of speakers including Kaitlin Yarnall, the chief storytelling officer at the National Geographic Society, Jessica Stahl, the editor for creative storytelling at Grist, and Andrea Bruce, a National Geographic photographer.

There will also be a private screening of the new film, Blue Carbon, an environmental documentary that brings together music and science.

Sesno said in recent years, news organizations across the country have invested more resources into climate coverage. What they’ve discovered is that their audiences also want to hear about solutions surrounding climate change instead of just the problems.

“It is vital to know that part of the story. And that's the part of the story that gives you hope,” Sesno said. “Amid all the problems and polarization, there is also progress. We wanted to focus on solutions.”

The search for solutions to the environmental crisis has become a generational calling, Sesno said, explaining that students all over the world are beginning to experience and see the effects of climate change firsthand.

“Climate has gotten more personal with our students,” Sesno said. “I hear more stories about students who experienced record heat, or their family home was impacted by wildfires. There are students from Texas who have had power disruptions because of the weather. Students who come from coastal areas and they're very conscious of rising sea levels and coastal erosion.”

The dedication of students to address the crisis is evident in the quality of the work they produce, Sesno said, highlighting the submissions to Storyfest, Planet Forward’s annual storytelling competition. Many of the submitted works showcased programs aimed at tackling climate-related challenges.

“Students are intensely interested in what's happening in their communities, what's happening in different parts of the world,” Sesno said.

There were 154 entries from 60 schools around the world to Storyfest. Of those submissions, 32 finalists have been selected and will go on to have their work judged by an independent panel of industry leaders and specialists before eight winners are chosen and announced at the Summit.  Grand prize winners will go with Planet Forward on storytelling expeditions to the Galapagos Islands or Iceland this summer.

This year, four out of the 32 finalists are GW students. All four GW finalists of the Storyfest competition centered their stories on issues and programs in the D.C. community.

Sesno said understanding how climate change is affecting local communities is an essential step in the search for solutions to tackle the climate crisis, which is why he was happy to see GW students invest time acquainting themselves with the history and current story of the issues facing D.C. neighborhoods.

“You have to start in your backyard, because that's where it's real,” Sesno said. “That’s where it happens. And climate change is going to affect every backyard if it isn't already. Getting into the community, across neighborhoods and socio-economic and racial lines is vital to understanding this very complex story of climate change and sustainability. It affects every community profoundly and in distinctly different ways.”

In hosting the Planet Forward summit over the years, Sesno said it has been gratifying to see a growing awareness and deepening commitment to solving environmental challenges from students.

“And it's been great to see the storytelling evolve,” Sesno said. “The stories are more thoughtful. There's more research, it's more creative.”

His hope for those attending the 2024 conference is that they leave with inspiration as well as tangible takeaways as to how they can become better storytellers and communicators and use those skills to drive action on climate change.