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Why the Field Museum is Backing the Climate Strike

The institution is throwing its weight behind Friday’s march — and it isn’t the first time it’s done so for environmentalist causes.

From March’s Youth Climate Strike, part of an international movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg   Credit: Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

This Friday, as youth activists march from Grant Park to Federal Plaza for the Global Climate Strike, they will be joined by hundreds of Field Museum employees. Among the more than a dozen keynote speakers: the museum’s chief curiosity correspondent Emily Graslie. Graslie is well-known for her YouTube channel The Brain Scoop, where she posts informative videos on everything from scientific topics to historical retrospectives to behind-the-scenes peeks inside the Field.

Ahead of Friday’s strike, Chicago talked with Graslie about activism and institutional responsibility.

Can you describe your role at the museum and how it intersects with the Climate Strike?

I make educational videos about the research that happens behind the scenes at the Field Museum as well as at other natural history museums. But really the heart of what I do is advocate for museums and for scientific research, tell science stories, and get people engaged in dialogue about our planet.

At the strike, I’m going to be one of over a dozen speakers, and I’m going to be talking about two things: how we know climate change is real, and how we know that humans are causing it. But the Field Museum will be coming out to join because this is what we do. We’re backing ourselves behind the science that tells us every day within our institution how our world is changing due to human-caused climate change and the warming planet.

Emily Graslie Credit: Aubrey Jane Photo

How did the museum get involved in the march?

What’s fun about working at the Field Museum is that we’re eager to do this. This didn’t take a lot of internal cajoling. We were invited to participate by the Illinois chapter of the Climate Strike, who were looking for adults to get out there and support their messaging. And that’s our role in this — to support this cause and show that our science tells us the ways that climate change is going to impact the city of Chicago and other parts of the planet.

Has the Field done anything of this scale before?

Yeah, we’ve been doing this for the last few years. I was the keynote speaker at Chicago’s March for Science in 2017, when I walked out with museum staff. We had the Facts Matter campaign, which was a video we made for the Day of Facts [on February 17] to say that we support scientific facts, as absurd as that might be or as “political” a statement as that is. That was a digital campaign viewed millions of times.

I think the Field Museum, among the institutions in Chicago, has been one of the biggest supporters of these global environmental activism campaigns, and consistently so. It’s interesting, I talked to people from the Shedd and Adler Planetarium, and neither had heard anything from their organizations about participating. I think that’s worth mentioning, because we really need everybody to be engaged in this conversation. It’s a critical mass moment in time: This is the largest instance of environmental activism ever. I strongly encourage anyone to even go stand on a street corner for ten minutes during the march time. Show that you stand in solidarity.

Climate change is a politicized topic. Is there a precarity to getting involved in that political space, especially in the context of a protest?

Well, anything can be politicized. But the reality of climate change is that it’s going to hit us everywhere. It’s going to hit the economy, but really it’s a humanitarian crisis. Even in Chicago, we have historic flooding. The lake has never been higher, and it’s leading to infrastructure problems, putting people’s property in danger. How is that political? I mean, it’s political because you can bring in the question of taxes to pay for construction to fix our lakefront. But it’s also an environmental problem. If our shoreline is disappearing, we’re losing that biodiversity; we’re losing critical habitat for endangered species. So at some point, you just have to get over the fact that some people think it’s a political issue.

Luckily, the Field Museum is a private institution that doesn’t receive much funding from the city itself, which is great for protecting us against some of those [accusations of partisanship]. Obviously, the question that comes up is our donor base: Will this have a negative impact on a trustee who hasn’t been paying attention to the science we’ve been trying to tell them about, for however long? Those are real conversations that museums have got to have. You just hope that they have enough courage to stand by the science they fund and that they’re supporting through their staff.

What does an institution like the Field Museum owe to a widespread, grassroots movement like the Climate Strike?

The museum has a collection of 30 million objects that span back hundreds of years. This is a 125-year-old institution. If anybody has any awareness of how our planet is changing, you’d look to a natural history museum. Our scientists have been studying this stuff for over a century, so we are keenly aware of the impacts climate change is having on our community. Our scientists are concerned; they publish concerning papers. We have a moral obligation to act on those concerns.

There’s 500 people that work at the Field Museum, and more than 200 of us are walking out of work on Friday. We’re serious about working together to find solutions to mitigate some of the impact that climate change is having and will have.

How can that movement benefit from the Field’s involvement?

I think it legitimizes some of [the Strike’s] concerns by having scientists there. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who started the strike, was invited to talk at the U.S. Congress the other day. Somebody was congratulating her for her bravery, and she was like, “You need to be talking to scientists. Don’t come to me for solutions. I’m a teenager; talk to the scientists.” By having our science staff and so many people who support that science at the museum show up, it really says to these activists, “We support you. We are here for you. We share your concerns.”

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