Screenshot: CNN

From the accounts I’ve seen so far, the candidates at Wednesday night’s climate change town hall on CNN seemed interested in a substantive discussion about the existential threat to the planet—even the audience questions were apparently good. So leave it to CNN’s resident talking heads to muck it up, as evidenced by this exchange between Chris Cuomo and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Here was the wind-up question from Cuomo, annotated by me:

So a quick question about going from the worker to the consumer. (THIS VENN DIAGRAM IS A PERFECT CIRCLE.) Today the president announced plans to roll back energy- saving lightbulbs, and he wants to reintroduce four different kinds, which I’m not going to burden you with, but one of them is the candle- shaped ones, and those are a favorite for a lot of people, by the way. (SHOUTOUT TO THE BOOMERS WATCHING AT HOME! NEXT HOT 2020 WEDGE ISSUE DRIVING PEOPLE TO TEAM TRUMP: THE CANDLE-SHAPED BULBS.) But do you think that the government should be in the business of telling you what kind of lightbulb you can have? (AH YES, MORE CONSERVATIVE FRAMING FROM CNN, THIS TIME ABOUT WHAT ‘BUSINESS’ THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT ENGAGE IN.)

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Warren, to her great credit, dispensed completely with this shitty question—“Oh, come on, give me a break,” she said—before making a critical point about consumer choices as a relatively small contributor to cataclysmic climate change.

It’s worth quoting her at length (emphasis is mine):

Look, there are a lot of ways that we try to change our energy consumption, and our pollution, and God bless all of those ways. Some of it is with lightbulbs, some of it is on straws, some of it, dang, is on cheeseburgers, right? There are a lot of different pieces to this. And I get that people are trying to find the part that they can work on and what can they do. And I’m in favor of that. And I’m going to help and I’m going to support.

But understand, this is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about.

“This is your problem.” They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries, and we can set our targets and say, by 2028, 2030, and 2035, no more. Think about that. Right there.

Now, the other 30 percent, we still got to work on. Oh, no, we don’t stop at 70 percent. But the point is, that’s where we need to focus. And why don’t we focus there? It’s corruption. It’s these giant corporations that keep hiring the PR firms that — everybody has fun with it, right, gets it all out there — so we don’t look at who’s still making the big bucks off polluting our Earth.

This is why the paper straws thing has irked me for quite some time. I’ll use the soggy straw and I’ll compost and I’ll recycle—because that’s what’s in my control, it’s what I can do—but largely speaking, large-scale greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to just a handful of companies. Among them are names like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron, and they’ve been leading the way on causing climate change for decades. For these major polluters literally ruining our planet, it’s been very useful to shift the conversation—and the responsibility—around how to “fix” climate change to the consumer. You can recycle and have meatless Mondays until the Earth is engulfed in flames, because that feels like the moral choice, when it’s more fair to say that as long as Exxon exists, we’re basically fucked.

That’s not particularly popular to say, and Warren did so much more delicately. But huge respect to her for introducing more nuance to the debate—from What can we do? to What industries and corporations must we dismantle to save our planet?