Defend Our Future and the National Campus Leadership Council brought 150 leaders from student governments, campus environmental organizations and university administrations to the Washington, D.C., for the three-day National Climate Leadership Summit to discuss and shape the future of climate leadership on college campuses and beyond. Summit participants represented 29 states and 70 campuses, and more than 1.4 million students. They were nominated for their leadership in climate action and sustainability programs on their campuses, which include food waste reduction programs, energy efficiency efforts, green space preservation, campus recycling programs and community bike shares. This is the second National Summit by Defend and NCLC, and followed a series of Regional Climate Summits held on 10 campuses in April.
Monday, June 6
A reception at the Library of Congress welcomed Summit participants and featured Atlanta-based indie rock band Von Grey, who have been dedicated supporters of Defend’s efforts to engage young people around climate. Students mingled, listened to the band, and posed for pictures and video, which were amplified through Defend social media channels.
Tuesday, June 7
In the morning, student leaders arrived at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for two hours of discussion with senior Administration officials from the White House, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. Summit participants were welcomed by White House Acting Director of Public Engagement Mark Antoniewicz and California State Student Association President Taylor Herren. They were immediately followed with remarks from Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Dan Utech. A panel moderated by Defend intern Thien Chau featured Rohan Patel and Jainey Bavishi from the White House, Mike Burns from EPA, and Heidi VanGenderen from DOE.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy concluded the White House portion of the Summit with a rousing keynote speech followed by questions and answers. McCarthy stated that her agency’s pragmatic approach to combating climate change were based on the best science available, transcended political divides and developed by working with a range of stakeholders, from environmental organizations, to social justice advocates, to industry. McCarthy also said that as a mother, EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment for the current and future generations was all the more personal. Finally, she told students not to lose hope despite Washington gridlock, because each person can contribute to finding solutions, even if the change they seek materializes over the course of their lifetime.
At American University, students participated in breakout sessions led by their peers, environmental and social justice leaders, and sustainability experts. Topics ranged from implementing the Paris Climate Agreement, engaging the executive branch around the Clean Power Plan and the methane rules, and advancing environmental justice.
Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) joined students for an afternoon discussion on legislative climate solutions moderated by Millennial Action Project President Steven Olikara. Gibson, co-chair of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, extolled the importance of finding bipartisan solutions to protect the environment while growing the economy. He called on student leaders in the room to encourage their peers to vote, because, he said, despite the disillusionment felt by many young people, members do listen, even if the message is conveyed through staff. As one of the few climate leaders in the Republican Party, Gibson remarked that beyond the economic and environmental considerations for action, he wanted to be “on the right side of history” and is working to convince more of his Republican colleagues to join him.
Tuesday night concluded with dinner, popcorn, a preview of the upcoming EDF film Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman and a screening of Racing Extinction.
Wednesday, June 8
Participants were welcomed back to AU by Megan Litke, the university’s Director of Sustainability Programs. Her remarks were followed by a plenary featuring Second Nature’s Director of Partnerships, Michele Madia and U.S. Green Building Council’s Higher Education Director, Jaime Van Mourik. Students participated in a second round of breakout sessions covering campus sustainability programs, grassroots organizing and raising awareness about climate change. Angela Barranco, former Associate Director of Public Engagement of the White House CEQ, concluded the Summit by leading a working lunch discussion about climate policy engagement strategies, linking her campus activism to her career in public service.