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University of Texas Professor Alexis Racelis helps students develop ‘land ethic’ to address climate change

Alexis Racelis
Alexis Racelis. Photo by Mary Catherine Longshore, AAAS

One of the first things Alexis Racelis does when he takes the podium before a crop of new students at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is apologize for climate change and what he calls a lack of stewardship from his generation.

“I didn’t know what my generation was doing to set the table for these young folks,” says Racelis, AAAS Member and assistant professor in the School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences. “That was a sense of ignorance, of acting without knowing, but I apologize to them because we burden them with our choices.”

This apology may alarm his students at first, but it sets a sobering tone for the long conversation they’ll explore all semester about how they’ll fight climate change.

Racelis, who focuses on agriculture, climate change and farming along the southern border of the United States, was one of 19 in a group of scientists, experts and leaders invited to join the AAAS’ advisory committee for its “How We Respond” project.

The “How We Respond” project, released this week, shares multimedia stories of how scientists, nonprofits, local governments and businesses, and motivated individuals are taking action on climate change.

As one of a few members of the “How We Respond” advisory committee with experience in agriculture, Racelis, a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Fellow, pushed for the inclusion of agriculture-related community spotlights in the report, given both the importance of agriculture in contributing to – and mitigating-- greenhouse gas emissions,  as well as the many impacts of climate change on agriculture. For example, how entrepreneurs and scientists in Wyoming are using a kind of charcoal called biochar to reduce carbon emissions and how Kansas farmers are reducing their water usage as the Southern Great Plains become drier.

Racelis also suggested people and community partners for AAAS to contact when it came to fleshing out those spotlights, and provided comments on the Davenport, Iowa story about use of marshland to protect against flooding.

“Ultimately the information was being brokered by AAAS but they were asking us all for input,” Racelis says. “We wanted to envision a report that would include examples of where scientists work with partners to inform action.”

Involving himself in the process for the “How We Respond” report was a no-brainer for Racelis because he wanted to share his lifetime of experiences as a scholar and applied researcher with the committee. It became his obligation as a scientist.

"There is a sense of urgency that compels all of us to do something about it and in this capacity, this is what I felt I can do best to have a measurable impact,” Racelis says. 

Born in the Los Angeles area to immigrant parents from the Philippines, Racelis says his grandparents came from agrarian backgrounds. His grandfather grew a mini-farm in the family’s backyard, which Racelis helped with, and made fishing nets.

“That generation were renaissance people who could do anything and survive on their own without needing much else,” Racelis says. “So, this helped breed ethic in me, this land ethic.”

Racelis’ land ethos deepened over time. When his family moved to the outskirts of San Diego, Racelis remembers finding foxes and lizards and exploring canyons. Today, Racelis passionately believes caring for people requires taking care of the land.

As a parent of two young children, Racelis says he has nightmares about what they’ll have to face when it comes to tackling climate change and laments that they can’t live in the same environment that his generation did.

In Racelis’ view, it’s harder to have appreciation for public lands once you get older. He tries to transfer that worldview to his students by getting them to go out into the field, into the park, and more. He creates exercises to help them build that connection and understand the relationship between organisms and the land.

Once they understand the connection, they can see how climate change impacts them and how they can fight it, Racelis says.

The culture of community leads to cooperation, which is why the “How We Respond” report focuses on hope and community support. Racelis for his part will continue his work in community engagement. He encourages his students to visit and repeatedly call their elected officials about climate change. In one of his classes, he shows students how to write a letter to an elected official about a topic they learned about in class. This not only engages the students but creates the sense of belonging he says is needed to address climate change. Racelis calls it “critical” not just for his students, but for everyone.

“There’s a lot out there focusing on the doom and gloom of climate change and … I teach about climate change in some of the classes that we offer here and it’s easy to get discouraged,” Racelis says. “And ultimately, when we see this aspiration and hope and this positive messaging, it’s really where you can engender engagement. It’s easy to be disengaged when things seem futile.”

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Lenore T. Adkins

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