The botched efforts to stop coronavirus and climate change

Why a decisive societal response is needed.

 

In the time of coronavirus, I headed to southern Utah’s remote canyon country to do some extreme social distancing.

All I knew when I emerged a few days later in western Colorado was that the world was … confusing. I half-expected to find empty highways and shuttered businesses. What I witnessed was an armada of black SUVs, loaded down with passengers and skis, all headed to the resort town of Telluride. This was mid-March.

Clearly, a lot of folks were determined not to let a deadly pandemic get in the way of their ski vacation. It occurred to me then that perhaps things weren’t so bad, after all. If that many people were still headed for the slopes, the crowded restaurants, bars, and supersized petri dishes — er, hot tubs — then surely the danger of the virus had passed, right? Wrong.

When the author emerged from a solo Utah trip into western Colorado, he expected to find deserted streets and towns. Instead, he found people, in mid-March, stocking up for their regular ski vacations. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has since closed down the state's ski areas, seemingly the only effort that would prevent vacationers from flocking to their favorite spots.

What I was witnessing was just one instance of an ad hoc, failed response to a crisis. It resembled a magnified version of the global response to climate change in which half the population is in panic mode, while the other half insists on life as usual.

I saw this play out in even starker relief in the supermarket in Montrose, which serves as a supply town for mountain towns to the south, including Telluride. The parking lot was packed, and at first glance things inside seemed fairly typical for a ski season Saturday. The avocados and bell peppers were stacked high in the produce section, and the fancy cheese bin was overflowing. Then I noticed the potatoes were all gone.

I hurried back to the rice and beans aisle only to find what I ascertained to be high-risk folks — older, frail-looking — staring at empty shelves. It was the same with the dried pasta section, where all that remained were a few boxes of gluten-free stuff. I grabbed them and anything else that would give me sustenance for the next week or so while I lived and worked out of my car. 

Back out in the parking lot a massive Cadillac Escalade and a handful of Chevy Suburbans were lined up in front of the liquor store. One woman told her companion to move the car closer because “we’ve got way too much to carry.”

What I was witnessing was just one instance of an ad hoc, failed response to a crisis.

Then it felt like a cascade: Meetings were canceled, my kids were being ordered to vacate their college dorms immediately, giving them little choice but to get on planes and fly across the ocean back to Bulgaria, where I live. Restaurants were shutting down. Meanwhile, the ski vacationers were stocking up on booze. Did they think they’re immune? Or did they believe President Trump when he first downplayed the virus, even calling it a hoax?

It’s tempting simply to roll one’s eyes: They’ll get what they deserve, while those who hole up in their houses and try to do their part to mitigate the virus’s spread will stay healthy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. By continuing on with their lives, the vacationers could negate the efforts of the conscientious crowd, and likely spread the virus to the people working in the restaurants, hotels and shops.

Climate change is no different. It does little good for one person to reduce their carbon footprint if all around them everyone else — with the encouragement of the federal government — drills for oil, burns natural gas or coal and consumes without limits, as if the climate catastrophe were just another media fixation.

What we need to battle both this virus and climate change is a coordinated, society-wide response. We need leaders who aren’t afraid of taking bold, decisive action, regardless of how it might impact the stock market or the bottom line of political donors. It truly is a matter of life and death.

That same day, March 14, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis took decisive action: He ordered every ski area in the state to shut down and then imposed restrictions on public gathering places. San Miguel County, home of Telluride, went farther: mandatory lock down, shelter in place, all tourists and non-residents must leave, and mandatory testing of the entire population by a private company.

Now we just need the same kind of resolve to tackle the climate crisis.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues. He is a freelance writer and author of the forthcoming novel, Behind the Slickrock Curtain. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.