Sustainability Summit Tackles Environmental Justice

During the virtual summit, thought leaders discussed ways everyone can make an impact on key climate and sustainability issues.

February 17, 2021

Jose Andres and Tara Scully on Zoom

José Andrés (top) spoke with CCAS' Tara Scully about the importance of taking action whenever possible during the virtual Sustainability Summit. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Briahnna Brown

To get more people involved in solving sustainability problems on a daily basis, the best approaches involve strong leadership and empathy, renowned chef, humanitarian and activist José Andrés said during a George Washington University event.

Empathetic gestures are more important now than ever, he said, and could be anything from helping older neighbors with groceries to donating your time or money to a local food bank. At times when it feels that the world is falling apart, Mr. Andrés said, those are the times to step in and do your part.

“We all, together, can be fixing many of the problems we face,” Mr. Andrés said. “When we think that nothing is happening, well, you should look at yourself in the mirror, because if something is not happening it’s because you are not trying to be part of the solution.”

Mr. Andrés shared his sentiments during the virtual Sustainability Summit on Thursday. Sustainable GW held the virtual summit to celebrate the sustainability accomplishments GW has made while also looking at the challenges that lie ahead and what the university community can contribute through technological and policy solutions.

During the summit, President Thomas LeBlanc reaffirmed the university’s commitment to sustainability by announcing a plan to phase out single-use plastics beginning immediately. Achieving this goal will require the work of the entire GW community, he said, but it is clear to him that GW has the power to be a leader in sustainability and environmental justice.

“Our unique contributions and our placement at the intersection of technology and policy, as well as our partnerships in the government, nonprofit and private sectors will continue to create lasting change,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “As our work continues to clearly demonstrate, we are better for our collaboration and commitment to creating a more sustainable world.”

The Sustainability Summit brought together key thought leaders to discuss environmental justice in the realm of community resiliency amid climate change, carbon neutrality and legacy emissions, and renewable, clean energy as a critical component to recovering from some of the damage that a reliance on fossil fuels has done to the planet. With the theme of the summit, “Reflect. Innovate. Re-Create.” there was also an emphasis on exploring solutions to those key issues discussed in various panels and interviews.

There was also a panel where GW deans from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, GW Law, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Milken Institute School of Public Health discussed the ways that academics working in their respective areas of expertise can make an impact on key sustainability issues. Through that discussion, the deans agreed that the academy can and should be doing more on sustainability issues, from research to empowering future leaders, and that GW has been at the forefront of this by incorporating sustainability in its mission. 

Provost M. Brian Blake opened the discussion by emphasizing that sustainability and climate change are interdisciplinary issues that require “cross-functional collaboration” to develop viable solutions.

“For more than a decade, our students, our faculty and staff have been thought leaders in sustainability—empowered through their teaching, their innovative research, sustainable investments and more,” Dr. Blake said. “To build understanding about resource consumptions, its impact on the environment and timely effective ways of responding to social and environmental changes, GW is also channeling this productive energy into making progress in reducing our own impact on the planet.”

Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for the School of Media and Public Affairs, interviewed U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) during the summit about progress that can be made on sustainability issues under President Joe Biden’s administration. After dealing with COVID-19 stimulus legislation, Mr. Casten said, there is hope that Congress will be able to tackle infrastructure issues, such as modernizing the electric grid and becoming a leading purchaser of clean energy. However, he said that there is a difficult road ahead when it comes to unpacking complex issues that tie climate change to unemployment and health care.

Mr. Casten’s advice for young emerging climate activists is that they need to couple their passion for saving the planet with the humility to defer to experts on the complex issues such as climate change and clean energy, he said.

“Just because it's urgent doesn't mean it's not also complicated,” Mr. Casten said. “If we move from a world where it's too complicated to act with urgency and shift to one that says it's too urgent to have to worry about the complexity, we lose either way.”