2021 Planet Forward Virtual Summit A New Narrative for our Planet: Urgency, Action, and Inclusion

Hope is back.

For our people. For our environment. For our world.

Planet Forward, a sustainability storytelling project based out of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, operates on a belief in the power of storytelling to build community, promote empathy, and inspire change. In the face of the ongoing environmental, economic, and social trials of the time, the Planet Forward team reckoned with the need for new narratives that face the planetary challenges of the moment and rises to meet them.

At the 2021 Planet Forward Virtual Summit, the focus was on the urgency of the climate crisis, environmental equity, inclusion — and the stories that propel them. Conversations throughout the summit explored how these environmental change agents — policymakers, activists, innovators, and others — use storytelling to transform their audiences from passive listeners to engaged doers.

Key Conversations

Climate Change Beyond a Human Lifetime

There's a problem inherent in the way we're processing the climate crisis: Our memories don't hold up enough to notice it.

This tension is central to National Geographic Explorer and documentary filmmaker John Sutter's ongoing documentary project "BASELINE." In his keynote presentation, he discussed the project's inspiration: "shifting baseline syndrome," through which our conceptions of "normal" are gradually, unnoticeably, shifting to a lower standard as the environment degrades.

Take the photo at left for example. While trophy catches in Key West, Florida, were nearly as tall as a fisherman at the time of this photo in the 1960s, trophy catches in the same body of water in the 2000s were closer to the size of a forearm. Yet, the fishermen seem just as pleased with their catch then as now.

With this phenomenon in mind, Sutter seeks to capture the story of climate change on a fittingly long timescale. Over the next 30 years, he will visit four locations in five installments to document how climate change alters local environments and the people who inhabit them.

After Sutter's presentation, GW's Dr. Imani Cheers posed questions about his innovative approach to climate storytelling and opened the floor to questions from student attendees.

Image courtesy of the Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr.

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"I think my broad takeaway (from the Summit) was that compelling storytelling around climate science is possible and it exists far beyond the typical 'doomsday' approach." –Summit Survey

Talking Climate and Weather with One of the Most Trusted Voices in America

Legendary broadcaster Al Roker is one of the most recognized figures in American life. On NBC’s Today Show he communicates important weather information to a wide and diverse audience. As a storyteller on NBC’s Climate Unit, he dives into the story of climate change, extreme weather, and solutions for our planet.

In a keynote interview with Frank Sesno, Roker shared his expertise on communicating the severity of the climate crisis to a general audience, motivating behavioral change without "preaching," and how he's seen weather change over his long history of reporting on it.

Still from "Climate in Crisis," courtesy of Comcast NBCUniversal.

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"The way you shape/angle a story matters — we have to make stories about climate change relatable to everyone." –Summit Survey

Meet the new EPA Administrator: Michael S. Regan

There's no better person to talk to about the themes of urgency, action, and inclusion than the new EPA Administrator Michael Regan. He is the former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where under his tenure he established the state's first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. Regan received his MPA from George Washington University's Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration in 2004, and he is an alumnus of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. He is the first Black man and the first graduate of a historically Black college and university to run the EPA in its 50-year history.

In this exclusive keynote interview, Regan discusses the importance of environmental justice, his history addressing environmental inequality, and how he and the Biden administration plan to make it a priority.

Image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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"Narrative is a critical component of engaging audiences and it is important to consider your audience when thinking about the right approach." –Summit Survey

Meet the Mayor of America’s Hottest City

In the race to adapt to extreme heat, Pheonix, Arizona, is at the forefront. In 2020, the city experienced a record-breaking 145 days of 100-degree weather. The mayor of Phoenix, Kate Gallego, joined the Planet Forward Summit to discuss the new urban technologies that the city is implementing to become the first "heat-ready city."

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Heat-preparedness for the most vulnerable

Afterward Gallego spoke, Planet Forward student contributors Adora Shortridge and William Walker from Arizona State University joined GW's National Geographic Professor of Science Communication and author of "Hot, Hungry Planet," Lisa Palmer, for a live Q&A about their work. The pair have spent time researching feasible and equitable heat-preparedness strategies for some of our most heat-vulnerable citizens: children.

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Moving Away from Single-Use Plastics

George Washington University announced in early 2021 it will phase out single-use plastics on campus. This decision begs the question: can and will other universities do the same? GW President Thomas LeBlanc explained why, how, and what the policy means for the GW community and beyond in conversation with Frank Sesno.

Image courtesy of Tom Page/Flickr.

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"Interesting to see how Phoenix is attempting to adapt. This needs to be an imperative for EVERY community. Also, GW's initiative to eliminate single use plastics is critical to show how it can be done and set the example." –Summit Survey

Networking Roundtables

In the midst of the pandemic, the act of gathering community was shaped by the winds of change. Unable to safely and responsibly convene at the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, as in prior years, Planet Forward recognized a need to create a different kind of welcoming environment – one that still allowed for the type of interaction that brings the Summit to life. Thanks to the events team at Scott Circle, and the platform Remo, Planet Forward brought their venue onto your computer screen, complete with networking tables, sponsor hubs, and a healthy amount of digital foliage.

2021 Planet Forward Virtual Summit Venue

During the networking break, the digital tables above were filled by summit attendees across ages and disciplines, convening in groups of ten or less to connect over the common goal of facing the climate crisis.

"The 2021 Summit was fantastic. The amount of experience I gained just through conversation seemed surreal. It was nice to have such a large group of friendly faces together again." –Summit Survey


At the Planet Forward summit, climate leaders shared the spotlight with student storytellers – especially those who participated in the 2021 Storyfest Competitions. Through this annual competition, Planet Forward awards students for exceptional stories that share climate solutions in mediums including articles, photo essays, short videos, and multi-media stories.

GAME TIME! Let's Talk Storyfest

Students publish stories on PlanetForward.org all year — this "Game Time" session brought those stories front and center. A panel of science and media experts featuring ASU Global Futures Laboratory's Steven Beschloss, PBS (WNET) Executive Producer Eugenia Harvey, Project Drawdown’s Matt Scott, and GW Professor Dr. Tara Scully, shared their feedback on a selection of Planet Forward Storyfest 2021 entries.

Stories brought to the spotlight included a TikTok-style informational video on the connections of climate and air quality by SUNY-ESF's Calvin Bordas and a short first-person documentary by Ryan Beiber exploring the tricky relationship between environmental journalism and environmental activism.

Still from "The quest for activism in journalism and environmentalism" by Ryan Beiber.

"I learned quite a few things from the Summit. However, the biggest takeaway for me was that you don't need to be a professional to effectively tell stories that make an impact." –Summit Survey

Congratulations Storyfest Winners!

As the summit culminated, Frank Sesno announced six grand prize winners of Storyfest 2021. Each winner received a grand prize of $500 and 50 trees planted in their names in a Cheppewa National Forest, courtesy of Planet Forward's friends at One Tree Planted.

The Storyfest 2021 winners are...

Best science narrative: Eva Legge, Dartmouth College, “The salamanders at the end of the world”

Most compelling character: Francesca Edralin, George Washington University, “Meet Cameroon’s ‘plastic man’: The story of environmental activist Forbi Perise”

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 Hannan, 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: Kenna Q. Kelley, Syracuse University, “Thrifting for the soul”

Photo of Chippewa National Forest courtesy of Forest Service, USDA/Flickr.

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Our Impact

2021 Planet Forward Summit attendees included representatives from 29 Higher-Ed Institutions

... and a variety of companies, non-profits, and organizations, including:

Planet Forward thanks the sponsors of the 2021 Virtual Summit