“Climate pledge.” “Carbon neutral.” “Green energy.” Over the last few years, companies and organizations have publicized terms like these in their plans to reduce carbon emissions.
More and more organizations responsible for producing large amounts of carbon emissions are setting deadlines for their emissions to reach net zero. The topic of climate change is also a key issue in the upcoming election; former Vice President and Democratic Nominee Joe Biden’s plan has promised “net-zero emissions... by no later than 2050,” while President Trump’s administration has rolled back dozens of regulations on clean energy and air. With the United Nations giving the world’s countries just years to prevent irreversible damage to the planet due to rising sea temperatures, climate change weighs heavier by the minute. However, at Hopkins, conversations surrounding carbon emissions have subsided without having illuminated the institution’s environmental practices.
Last fall, Hopkins installed composting bins around campus and asked students to compost food waste, but all composting bins have since been removed from campus. Additionally, school lunches are now packed in non-recyclable styrofoam containers, and water is now distributed in low volume plastic bottles. “Due to COVID-19 protocols it’s very difficult and maybe impossible to avoid, but seeing the piles of plastic and styrofoam we go through daily is painful,” says Sophie Sonnenfeld ’21.
Apart from the recent changes to waste management prompted by COVID-19, the school has not updated the sustainability page
on the Hopkins website. The page mentions measures to recycle, compost, reduce paper use, and make reusable water bottles more popular. Hopkins last overhauled its sustainability policies in 2008, when former History Department Chair and Head of the Sustainability Committee Cilla Leavitt published a report on the school’s carbon footprint and presented her findings to the Hopkins Board of Trustees. “I was granted a sabbatical for a semester in 2008 and part of the ‘gift’ is to choose a project. I came up with the idea for an ‘Environmental Plan,’” said Leavitt. “I did make a presentation of my plan to the entire Board after I wrote it. Probably in the spring of 2009. It was warmly received.” Many of the changes we see on campus today, such as recycling, composting, and reusable water bottle fountains were inspired by Leavitt’s report.
Another lasting result of Leavitt’s environmental report was the creation of the Sustainability Committee (SusCo). Head of SusCo Julia Kosinski ’21 says the committee met last spring with Chief Financial and Operation Officer David Baxter and Finance and Accounting Manager Marc Paradis to “discuss Hopkins’s current energy consumption and emissions, as well as implementing carbon offsets to lessen the school’s environmental footprint.”
As for Hopkins’s energy sourcing, Connecticut law requires all energy providers to source 29% of their energy from renewable sources, but Hopkins’s energy usage is ambiguous. Hopkins hopes to install solar panels on campus in the future, but Baxter notes that there are several logistic issues that come with panel installation: “Hopkins has investigated solar over the year...Unfortunately, the two primary candidates for solar are also the two buildings in the Master Plan slated for significant renovation and expansion. Hopkins simply cannot contractually commit now that those roofs will be unaltered for 20-25 years.” Baxter did say, however, that “When actual capital project planning/design begins on these buildings it will include exploration of solar, geothermal and other sustainable elements.”
At universities around the country, students are recognizing their institutions’ investments in the fossil fuel industry and other unethical funds. A notable example is Fossil Free Yale, a part of the Endowment Justice Coalition, which made national news in the past year after storming the field at the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Fi Schroth-Douma ’19 represents Fossil Free Yale. “Workers can leverage their labor by organizing a strike, people can leverage their capital by boycotting a company, and students can leverage... what exactly? In our case, it was publicity.” Fossil Free Yale promotes divestment and redistribution of Yale’s investments by organizing sit-ins, large protests, petitions, and other events. Fossil Free Yale also brings awareness to predatory investments in Puerto Rico’s crippling debt. In an article published in 2018, representatives for Fossil Free Yale said the movement “demands that Yale pressure its hedge fund managers to stop the predatory debt collection they are currently pursuing against Puerto Rico.” Plus, Puerto Rico’s debt has only increased since hurricanes Irma and Maria, intensified by warmer ocean temperatures, devastated the island.
So, how does Hopkins compare? Although minuscule in comparison to Yale’s hundreds of millions held in the fossil fuel industry, Hopkins currently holds $4.1 million- equivalent to around 2.5% of the school’s endowment- in natural resource funds. According to Baxter, the investment is split between two funds- one “takes passive investment interests in oil and gas properties,” and the other “invests in natural resources more broadly defined – energy, precious and other metals, forest products, food and agriculture and other basic commodities.”
Though concerned about the school’s climate policy, some students think there are bigger fish to fry. “The best ways to try and combat climate change aren’t on a personal, day to day level. There have to be systemic changes,” said Sawyer Maloney. “However, as a member of the greater New Haven community, and the global community, I think Hopkins has a responsibility to try and affect positive change wherever it (we) can.”
As a solution to make the school friendlier to electric vehicle owners, Bennitt suggests the school install electric vehicle charging ports in the Forest parking lot, which she says “would send the message that we value broadening the EV community by placing the appropriate importance on environmental ethics, and might help convince buyers on the fence that school is supporting them to go with fully electric vehicles.” Sonnenfeld has been conscious about Hopkins’s environmental impact for a while; before COVID-19, she promoted Meatless Mondays weekly in Heath with Jack Kealey ’21. From recycling to protesting, Hopkins students, alumni, and teachers are finding ways to be more environmentally conscious- and inform others along the way.