Austin Peek and the UMass Climateers tackle climate change

Eight students sit in an Elm Hall classroom at the Commonwealth Honors College on Feb. 22. They all come from different majors — finance, engineering, microbiology, computer science — but they share one passion: fighting climate change.

Austin Peek, 21, dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and a Pacific Whale Foundation cap, leads a discussion that compares clean and dirty energy sources. Students discuss the pros and cons of renewable energy, some saying that people suffer as a result of waste in America.

This is the second meeting of the UMass Climateers, a student-run group fighting climate change.

Peek (far right) addresses the Climateers at the meeting.

Peek, president of the Climateers, considers the club a “gateway group” to environmental activism. The sophomore raises awareness and lets members decide how much they want to contribute. Each meeting ends with simple, day-to-day solutions to conserve energy and avoid waste. At this second meeting, Peek challenged fellow Climateers to unplug their electronics when not in use. 

“We’re not teaching people drastic things, like to become a vegan or chain yourself to a tree,” Peek joked. “Just the small things, like just cutting back on meat. I only eat it half the week now.”

Peek believes that small, collective contributions, like walking to school instead of driving, or cutting back on meat, can lead to colossal change. He pushes students to do these little things and, if they feel like getting more involved, connects them with organizations like Divest UMass or Climate Action Now.

Though Peek leads the Climateers, he said he still has a lot to learn and that he’s grateful to have the group as a support system.

Before last semester, Peek said he barely knew what climate change was. He aspired to be a veterinarian, then realized he wasn’t interested in learning about medicine; he would rather take more direct action to help animals, he said, like conserving their habitats.

Peek eventually switched to a natural resource conservation (NRC) major with a concentration in wildlife conservation and ecology. He said he knew he made the right change after volunteering at Connecticut River Watershed for his first NRC class, in which he helped clear over six acres of invasive species, including bittersweet vines that strangle trees.

“It was the first time I’ve ever experienced the feeling that I’ve done something right,” Peek said.  

Peek founded the Climateers soon after, modeling the group after Talking Truth, a series of lectures hosted by Madeline Charney, a sustainability studies librarian, and Kris Nelson of the Office of Civic Engagement. The three-part, open discussion focused on reflective and emotional responses to climate change, during which students, staff, librarians and faculty discussed fears and possible solutions regarding climate change.

After attending the series and speaking with people who shared both his passions and concerns, Peek said he was inspired. He refused to let the conversation end after the final lecture, and asked what more he could do.

From there, the Climateers were born and they add to the growing movement on campus to address the emotional impact of climate change.

“The fact that the Climateers resulted as a by-product was the most perfect gift,” said Charney of the group. “They knew that more needed to be done and took it upon themselves to do it.”

The UMass Climateers meet in Elm Hall to discuss the impacts of climate change.

For many Climateers, this is their first time getting involved with environmental issues. Peek said that students from all academic majors benefit the group because they contribute different skills. During one open discussion about nuclear energy, Peek admitted he didn’t fully understand nuclear waste.

“Is it a solid or a liquid?” he asked. 

An engineering student in the group had the answer: it could be a solid, a liquid, or a gas.

At the first Climateers meeting, Peek wrote a question on the white board for members to answer.

How does climate change make you feel? 

Microbiology student Shelby Tonelli remembered that many expressed their frustration, anger and fear. She said she felt the same way.

“That’s what this group is for,” the freshman said. “It’s an outlet for the frustration we feel, and also a way to do something about it.”

When Peek stands in front of these frustrated and passionate students, he remains calm and understanding. Though soft-spoken, he engages with his audience and fuels conversations. He’s a natural leader, though he said he never thought he was.

Back in high school, Peek suffered from anxiety and depression. Sometimes, he said, he couldn’t leave his room, let alone raise his hand in class. Once he overcame his fears, Peek said he felt like he could do anything. And when he realized his passion, he felt a duty to his fellow students.

“I just want people to start thinking about their planet before things get worse,” he said. “Because if it gets that bad, we have nowhere else to go. We can’t just move planets.”

The Climateers meet biweekly in Elm 212, though Peek and the executive board meet every week. They research new topics for each meeting and prepare presentations. Each meeting begins with a question and ends with a challenge, always including discussion and activities. 

The executive board, from left to right: Treasurer Ashley Casello, President Austin Peek, and Secretary Nicole Sheridan.

At one meeting the Climateers made their own, all-natural laundry detergent. In future weeks they will make their own reusable bags out of old T-shirts.

Peek said he hopes to see more students from more diverse backgrounds join the Climateers next semester and that he dreams of one day filling a lecture hall will recruited students. In the long run, Peek said, he hopes that the Climateers will expand to other schools, as the divest movement has.

Peek doesn’t plan to stop his environmental activism after the semester ends, either. He has applied to be a conservation research assistant at the Philadelphia Zoo, and a marine fish tagging intern at a preservation on the Jersey Shore.

“I just love doing this stuff,” Peek said. “I want to save my planet. I want to save my home.”

Email Haley at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @hbucelew.

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