Warren did pretty good, although she should revisit her stance on nuclear power.
Warren did pretty good, although she should revisit her stance on nuclear power. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Climate change has been all but ignored during previous election cycles. During the 2016 Presidential debates, the most pressing issue facing our species got fewer than six minutes—total—of air time. But this time around is different: Nearly all of the Democratic hopefuls have named the climate crisis as the single most important issue of our time, and they're actually proposing solutions.

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Last night was the most obvious example of this shift, as CNN hosted a seven-hour climate crisis town hall with the top 10 candidates each getting 40 minutes to answer questions from moderators and viewers.

There was, of course, a lot of repetition over the course of the evening. I think every candidate mentioned Donald Trump's climate change denial and the need to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord immediately. But they also showed some interesting differences. I was particularly struck by who is willing to embrace nuclear energy and who is not. Andrew Yang, no surprise, is into it. Bernie Sanders, no surprise, is not. In fact, both Sanders and Warren said that no new nuclear power plants will be built during their hypothetical administrations, and what's more, they would decommission the ones that already exist.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of nuclear—the Fukushima disaster and the fact that we still don't have good disposal options for nuclear waste being the most obvious—but nuclear power currently provides 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply, and it's by far the most efficient carbon neutral source that we've got. Like wind and solar power, it doesn't emit carbon, but unlike wind and solar, it works around the clock and doesn't require the weather to cooperate.

As Cory Booker, who has endorsed nuclear, put it, "People who think we can get [to carbon neutral] without nuclear being part of the blend are not looking at the facts.” It’s an unfortunate truth, but if the goal is to get off fossil fuels immediately, he’s probably right.

Eric Levitz wrote more about this in more detail for New York Magazine, which I highly recommend if you've got questions about nuclear power, but while Sanders and Warren are clearly serious about climate change, their policy positions need to be less influenced by public (and activist) opinion and more influenced by science. It's a bit ironic that at one point Sanders said something about how he, unlike Trump, is a believer in science while preaching against nuclear power. That said, while nuclear accidents are exceedingly rare, the consequences are so great that it's not hard to see why people are fearful of the technology—and why candidates would shy away from endorsing it. Still, if you believe in science, you cannot just write nuclear off.

In terms of political skills, the worst performer of the night was Joe Biden. He was rambling, as per usual, and name-dropped Obama at every possible chance (also per usual). Also, his eye seemed to, uh, fill with blood while he was onstage, and while I'm not generally one for superstition, there could be no clearer sign that the man should be playing with his grandkids and going to doctor's appointments instead of running for President.

As for the substance of his comments, Biden mostly talked about how the U.S. needs to demonstrate how to lead on climate change for the rest of the world, as though the only thing China needs in order to go carbon neutral is a better role model—and not, say, binding agreements, renewable technology, and a clear path forward.

Kamala Harris was also unimpressive. Harris, who initially declined the invitation to participate before changing her mind, did not seem well versed on the issues. While she was the lone candidate to say she would ratify an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, she also spent too much time talking about banning plastic straws, which is not a winning issue (as most people who've seen paper straws dissolve in their cold brew can attest).

Harris also said she's in favor of implementing new dietary guidelines in order to reduce meat consumption in the U.S., although I'm not sure how many people (if any) pay attention to federal dietary guidelines when planning their lunch. To her credit, she did say she would support eliminating the filibuster if the Republican-controlled Congress doesn't pass the Green New Deal, and that she would hold big polluters accountable, whatever that means.

Warren, who has now adopted Jay Inslee's climate agenda, talked about straws too, but her take was more interesting.

“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about," she said. "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 just three industries.” Those industries, by the way, are building, electric power, and oil, which under President Warren, will face much stricter regulation. Warren also, rightfully, talked about the impact of money, lobbyists, and political corruption in stymying efforts to address climate change.

There was also a lot of talk about personal responsibility. CNN moderators kept asking candidates what individuals should do to combat climate change, which, frankly, is just not the right question. Amy Klobuchar mentioned washing clothes in cold water instead of hot to save energy. This is a fine thing to do—as is decreasing the amount of meat on our plates and the number offspring in our wombs—but personal responsibility will not solve this crisis. What it's going to take is government action. As one of the younger white guys (either Beto or Buttiegieg, I can’t recall which) said, this is exactly why people need government. You can control your hamburger consumption. You cannot control where your local utilities gets its power.

There was a lot more discussed over the course of the evening, from jobs guarantees to ending the filibuster to whether or not the government should force people to go vegan or give up combustion engines (spoiler alert: no), but to me, the major takeaway here is just how much more informative this format was compared to the usual debates. When there are 10 people on stage with less than a minute to answer questions, all the candidates can do is spew a few platitudes before it's time to hand over the mic. But when you ask decent questions and give candidates time to answer them, turns out, they'll actually do it.

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