“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Paleoecology [pey-lee-oh-i-kol–uh-jee]: noun – the branch of ecology dealing with the relations and interactions between ancient life forms and their environment.
For most of us, paleoecology is a brand new word to add to our vocabulary. For Dr. Lisa Graumlich, it’s a way of life.
The Toledo-area native has devoted her career to studying climate change, from serving as director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at The University of Arizona, to filling the post of executive director of the Big Sky Institute, to her current role as inaugural dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.
But as she tells The Buckeye Flame, her legendary research and environmental advocacy can all be traced back to a family farm right outside of Toledo.
Give us the Lisa Graumlich Ohio backstory.
I grew up in a suburb outside of Toledo named Sylvania. My parents were born and raised in Toledo. Both sets of grandparents were in Toledo. So we were Toledo people. Before I went to college, I had an 18-year run in Toledo with a mixture of pride in feeling like Toledo was a really special place but also realizing that people kind of made fun of Toledo in popular culture. In my teen years, I realized the rest of the world doesn’t understand the civic pride we felt. My parents took us downtown a lot. Toledo was their legacy and my grandparents’ legacy. The city was very important to me.
When little Lisa was running around Sylvania, was she saying, “I want to be paleoecologist!”
[laughs]No. Not at all. My grandfather had an 80 acre farm where I spent a lot of time. I had two brothers, but somehow I was more interested in the farm than my two brothers. I would help my grandfather drive the tractor, walk through the soybeans, walk through the corn. There was an orchard with beautiful peaches.
Zooming way ahead to 1977, I was sitting in Madison, Wisconsin, taking a class in climate before climate was a big deal, and there was a drought that started to happen. The drought went from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canadian border. It sounds so normal now, but at that time, there had not been a drought of that severity since the 1930s.
And this next part was so intense, I can tell you 40 years later exactly in which chair I was seated in that room. The professor said, “Well, we don’t know if this drought is due to natural variability or climate change.” My heart started to beat and I started to sweat. And I thought, “Why don’t you know the answer to that question?!”
All I could think about was walking in those fields with my grandfather, and if climate is changing, it will disrupt that farm. It was so much more visceral and real for me than those sitting next to me. I went to up to that professor and we started a conversation. It turns out that one of the ways you can answer the question of natural variability vs,. climate change is to look at climate records back in time. But in 1977, we only had about 25 years of weather records. So I got very interested in how we use tree rings to push the climate records back hundreds to thousands of years.
Fast forward, I get a PhD and I do a bunch of stuff. Then in the early 2000s people finally start to say, “Climate change is real,” and that the last two decades of the earth’s history are the warmest it has been in the past thousand years. And right there, Lisa Graumlich with her students started getting a global community of people together to answer that question that was posed to me in 1977 that made me think of my grandfather’s farm. So it all comes together.
You’ve done such incredible work looking at diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM. How are LGBTQ+ individuals doing in STEM?
It’s gradually getting better. The last 6 months have opened up much-needed conversations in race and equity in STEM which has been of great benefit to the LGBTQ community. in allowing conversations about privilege and microaggressions. It’s helping all people who don’t fit some kind of stereotype about who a scientist is.
I’m really proud of the earth science community as we’ve started to really take this on. As an earth scientist, we send our students all over the world. A very prominent scientific journal recently showed where in the world it is literally illegal to be gay and made the point that if you’re not out and you join a research project that is supposed to go there, you’re taking a risk that’s totally invisible to your professor and to your research group. It’s not just that there are ways in which the social climate in your lab group, your department, or in your university can be challenging, but if you’re a scientist, there’s literally not the freedom and confidence to engage globally as there would be for heterosexual colleagues.
You’ve done this research. You work with scientists. And you’ve testified on Capitol Hill. How do you go about balancing the science and the politics when talking about climate change?
Oh boy. You are good, Ken. [laughs]Let’s add on another layer, I’m a leader of a public university, so I’m an employee of the state of Washington.
I learned very quickly that it is very important for me to maintain my credibility as a scientist and not as an advocate. And Ken, frankly, sometimes it really kills me because I need to be really careful when I am doing advocacy work to not use my university affiliation.
I had some very good mentors. I have been trained for hours and hours in how to navigate this. In about year, I step down as dean and I’m really looking forward to be able to speak more as a citizen than as a state employee [laughs].
What can our readers do right this very second to address climate change?
First of all, take it from your fellow Ohioan who has studied this for decades: climate change is real. It affects all of us. We’re not talking about our grandchildren. It’s affecting us right now.
The most important thing we could do right now is to talk about it. It’s a contentious issue. Because it is divisive, it has become difficult to talk about. But we have to talk about how climate change affects things that we value.
Taking action to me is always about connecting where you already have momentum. If you’re starting from scratch it’s harder than if you start with something you love.
So I have a favorite website, Project Drawdown, it has 100 things you could do. For example, here in Seattle, I have some friends who are so into food. One of the biggest things we could do to reduce greenhouse gas is eat lower on the food chain. You don’t have to be vegan, but instead of eating red meat every day, eat it twice a week. Dial it down. And then try to stop wasting so much food.
If you care about transportation, get yourself a darn hybrid, or get yourself an electric car. Start to demand electrification of the urban transport system. Find the place where you can live those values. If we all just find one of those places, we can get there.
Before we close, I have to ask: what are you actually saying in your head when someone says to you, “Climate change is not real.”
[pause]I try not swear.
In all honesty, I look at them and I really pause. I try to really figure out, “What do you care about with regard to your future and what will you do to make sure that it’s there in the future?”
Believe me, I get plenty angry, but fighting with people is not getting us anyplace right now. It’s all about connecting with our common values. After I have my moment of swearing internally in my inside voice, my outside voice truly is about curiosity. “How’d you get there? And how can we get you the real info? ”
- Go to Project Drawdown right this very second. There are a flippin’ TON of solutions there alongside how the solutions translate into actual environmental impact. Pick something to do and then DO SOMETHING.