As we recover from our past year of quarantine, we begin to reflect on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the environment. Members of the Hopkins community speculate that Covid-19 contributes to a worsening climate.
Brad Ridky, the Faculty Advisor of the Sustainability Committee (SusCo), states, “Beyond the pile-up of disposable masks and lunch take-out containers (and maybe the temporary drop in CO2 levels as people stayed home), the immediate climate effects of a virus are not so clear.” In order to prevent infections and abide by COVID-19 protocols, we altered our daily lives to include single-use items. To prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the school, the Hopkins students body would participate in weekly PCR tests, which entailed single-use nasal swabs. Amalia Tuchmann ’23, an intern for the Climate Health Education Project (CHEP), elaborates on the influence that COVID-19 had on waste production, “On a sustainability level, all the plastic waste that is COVID-related, masks and tests, has generated [and] is not great for the ocean and all of the treatment plants that are receiving it.”
Although the environmental changes might be subtle here at Hopkins, the community is still affected by climate change. Colin Gray ’22, head of the Natural Disaster Relief Club, explains the ways in which the climate crisis affects everyone, “We are experiencing hotter and drier summers, spring comes earlier but brings a lot of heavy downpours.” He continues, “We need to begin combating climate change together because climate-related disasters - disasters that are taking the lives of innocent people - have tripled over the last 30 years and there isn’t an end in sight.” Tuchmann provides examples of localized instances that demonstrate the negative results of climate change, “The climate crisis impacts New Haven, and I think that Hopkins should be paying a lot more attention to it. New Haven’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to flooding, like Fair Haven, are also its most low-income neighborhoods. It’s a real issue considering that flooding is becoming a bad problem, and it’s going to become an even worse problem.” She chastises Hopkins’ lack of engagement with the climate crisis in its community, “The fact that Hopkins is up on a hill makes the school seem to be removed from all of New Haven. We don’t really do too much outreach, fundraising, or groundwork, and [this] is something that should be addressed.”
The existential and global nature of the climate crisis is imminent, regardless of the pandemic. Joy Xu ’23, co-head of SusCo, articulates, “It’s more like we have a constant awareness that the clock is ticking and something needs to be done soon, rather than a specific event happening that triggered our actions.” Ridky comments on the connection between the epidemic and the environment, “What I hope is obvious in both cases, though, is the need to depend on science and to act at more than the individual level. Scientists have been warning us for decades about both global warming and the likelihood of pandemics.” However, the head of the Society of Women Engineers (SWENext) club, Amy Zhang ’22 believes, “The reduction in human activity in general (reduced transportation, fewer materials that were used because we all had to rely on the Internet, etc)” during the pandemic “might have been beneficial for the climate crisis because less human activity means fewer carbon emissions or fewer activities that would harm the planet, such as deforestation or slash-and-burn agriculture.” Hopkins is not in a position to evaluate macro-level changes to the environment in relation to COVID-19; but some members of the Hopkins community acknowledge that campus practices may have had an adverse impact, especially the use of single-use items.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Hopkins community was distracted by the priority of combatting COVID-19. As the virus becomes less threatening, students are refocusing on reversing the pandemic’s effect on climate. Tuchmann describes the footprint that the pandemic had on local climate activist organizations, “I think that, with COVID, the fact that people have not been able to organize as much has definitely been an issue for getting the work out because we weren’t able to have big public events.” However, during the pandemic, the New Haven Climate Movement (NHCM) found ways to safely encourage other New Haven residents to join the fight against climate change. Tuchmann explains that as a Climate Health Education Project intern, she and a team of environmental activists “planned three different tabling events...We organized signs, posters, informational fliers, and activities like planting seeds and decorating plant pots. We set those up at the City Seeds farmers market for a few weekends. We tried to get people to join NHCM and get signatures on our petition.”
SusCo worked with other organizations and clubs within Hopkins and the New Haven community in order to expand their outreach. Natalie Card ’23, co-head of SusCo, adds that Hopkins Climate Week was inspired by the actions of the NHCM, “The Climate Week was part of my involvement with the Climate Health Education Project, a branch of the New Haven Climate Movement. I came to SusCo with the idea for Climate Week and we worked out how best to implement [it] within Hopkins.” SusCo partnered with other groups to encourage involvement and activism. Card continues, “We will focus more on collective actions rather than individual actions, so instead of encouraging individuals to take shorter showers, for example, we would organize a group trash pickup. With this focus, we can pool students’ efforts and their unique talents in order to work together on projects that have a large environmental impact.”
In the Hopkins community, SusCo works to reduce COVID’s transform on the environment within the Hopkins community. Xu explains the inspiration behind SusCo’s waste-reduction initiatives, “Last year, with the changes in the lunchroom in response to COVID, we felt the pressing need to address the amount of waste generated at lunch every day, so we tried to advocate for students to use reusable containers.” SusCo and SWENext worked together in order to reduce waste during lunch by encouraging the use of reusable containers. Zhang, describes the way they chose which issues to prioritize, “We were doing a sustainability design competition where we had to implement a solution to make something more sustainable, and one of the first points we thought of was how much waste was being produced every day last year just from lunches. Encouraging people to use their own containers instead of plastic ones that could only be used once seemed like the easiest (and most effective) solution.”
In addition to the issue of reusable containers, post-pandemic, Hopkins is making other sustainable changes at the institutional level. Karen Silk, Hopkins Front Office Administrative Assistant, purchases recycled paper for the school, “I go through around twelve cases of paper a week now that we’re back to full-time school. I place the order for the printers and copiers, and the paper [is] recycled.” Liz Climie, Director of Facilities, explains the work she has been doing to reduce Hopkins’s footprint, “We have been updating our lighting systems to be more energy-efficient. Actually, this summer, we upgraded the lighting in Lovell, Heath, Malone, Baldwin, and the library. We have been upgrading mechanical equipment as well. Next summer, we are replacing the boilers in Baldwin and Alumni House with more energy-efficient equipment.”
Students engaged with the climate crisis are brainstorming new strategies for this upcoming year. Xu and the SusCo are designing new events to spread awareness about the environmental crisis, “We are planning on taking on projects around campus, such as finishing our bioswale.” Gray has set goals for the Natural Disaster Relief Club, “NDR Club has big plans for this upcoming year. With hurricane season having just ended, wildfires still raging, and volcanoes erupting across the globe; much has to be done. NDR has made its goal to raise over $15,000 this year to go toward those impacted by natural disasters.” Lastly, Zhang is organizing community service events and competitions to engage the community, “This year, we hope to continue doing more activities, like STEM-related competitions or challenges, bring in speakers, and maybe even venture out to some outreach/community service events!”