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The Debate Around Banning Plastic Straws Is a Trap

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren. Photo: Paras Griffin/WireImage

The U.N. has called climate change the “defining issue of our time,” one that requires “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” And yet the U.S. conversation on confronting the crisis has spent a disproportionate amount of time on … whether to ban plastic straws. So it was refreshing to see Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren refuse to engage with that question at all during a town hall earlier this week.

During CNN’s seven-hour climate town hall on Wednesday night, the ten candidates who will be participating in the upcoming Democratic debates used the stage to discuss a handful of climate-related issues, like the Paris climate accord and greenhouse gases. The moderators also touched on the nationwide effort to ban plastic straws — an admirable cause, to be sure, but one that distracts from the larger structural changes at issue. Some candidates, such as California senator Kamala Harris, responded enthusiastically, calling for a ban on plastic straws. But when moderator Chris Cuomo asked Warren about whether the government should regulate straws — as well as other products that have an environmental impact, like light bulbs — she did little to conceal her annoyance with the question.

“Oh, come on, give me a break,” she said in what was one of the more electrifying moments of the town hall. Though she understands and admires consumers’ efforts to “find the part that they can work on and what can they do,” she said that putting the onus on the individual is inadequate.

“Understand, this is exactly what the fossil-fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” she continued. “They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, 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.”

Few politicians have approached the issue of climate change with necessary urgency despite the cries of environmental activists around the world. Groups like Sunrise Movement and the People’s Climate Movement have been fighting for the passage of the Green New Deal alongside progressive politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and we’ve watched the growth of an inspiring youth climate movement; meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee recently voted down holding a stand-alone climate debate.

However, some presidential candidates, like Warren — as well as Vermont senator Bernie Sanders — have put forward progressive practices and policies demonstrating that they understand structural change is needed and it’s needed now. In January, Warren became the first candidate to sign a pledge declaring that she would not take campaign donations from the fossil-fuel industry, and has factored the climate into many of her myriad proposals. Most recently, she embraced the ambitious climate platform of former presidential candidate Jay Inslee, who made the issue the cornerstone of his short campaign. Under Warren’s $3 trillion plan, she would call for the U.S. to achieve 100 percent clean energy within the next ten years.

She knows we don’t have time for relatively minor distractions.

The Debate Around Banning Plastic Straws Is a Trap