Like plastic straws, gas stoves represent an easy way to begin talking about a massive and generally unseen climate problem.
I used to think activists should avoid certain topics like stoves/straws/meat that were guaranteed to provoke overblown reactions from the right. Then I quickly realized that they’ll overblow literally anything. Can’t let their reactions dictate the conversation.
According to the EPA, "37% of methane emissions from human activity are the direct result of our livestock and agricultural practices." AOC stated this fact, and her words were distorted to create patronizing headlines about cow farts. As soon as someone mentioned the fact that gas stoves contribute to global warming, the crazies came out, and we saw tweets about prying "cold, dead hands" off their cherished gas stoves.
We used to hear similar comments about seat belts and cigarettes and hair spray and - my personal favorite - R22 refrigerant. And yet public perception about each one of these changed virtually overnight, and it did so because responsible people in positions of authority made decisions based on science that improved things for all of us. The "Ozone Debate" is a classic case of science overpowering stupidity: in spite of comments about how ridiculous it was to think that hair spray was going to bring about the end of humankind, science prevailed. International agreements limited the production of ozone-depleting chemicals, and the problem was corrected.
The reason we dodged the ozone bullet was that the R-22 lobby wasn't quite as powerful as today's fossil fuel lobby - plus, there was no Tweeting back then. Or Fox "News." The "How stupid is this?" voices were somewhat subdued. Today, fossil fuel bribery specialists (aka, "lobbyists") are sitting in on every conference about climate change, so the ability of science to overtake the noise is that much more difficult. Let's hope the science eventually wins.
The other reason gas stoves can be a 'gateway' topic is the infrastructure they require that locks in / facilitates the use of natural gas for a long time. Lots of fossil fuel projects aren't just about the fuel but about the infrastructure. The opportunity cost of fossil infra is enormous when you think about what infra we could be building for a clean energy economy.
Thank you for reframing this! My husband and I were talking about plastic straws the other day and I came down on the “not worthwhile” side but your article has me rethinking that. We have a five-seven year plan to electrify our house but our biggest obstacle is actually going to be our gas fire place. I know it’s seems silly but I love it so much! Adds extra warmth in the winter plus there is something I just love about sitting in front of the flames. I know I just have to get over it but it will be hard for me. I assume that’s how some people feel about their stoves.
Great article. I think a similar approach could be applied to the answer/rebuttal to the "According to the EPA, fossil fuel combustion in buildings is only responsible for about 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. "
Which is, while 13% sounds like a "small percentage", that 13% represents a chunk that is the same size as the percentage of emissions from cars and trucks (eg. passenger cars, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans)
"The remaining greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector come from other modes of transportation, including commercial aircraft, ships, boats, and trains, as well as pipelines and lubricants." (quotes from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions )
So, I'd say to those saying "only 13%" that this represents one of the larger "chunks" of emissions that are well worth tackling, as have internal combustion engines on our roads.
I don't think my family has ever considered anything other than a gas stove. Thanks for giving me something to think about (that sounds sarcastic because we already have so much to keep track of, but I genuinely mean it).
I wrote on this topic a couple years ago - albeit for a wonkier GHG accounting audience! The big issues are methane leakage is continually underestimated, but methane leaks are easily detectible using imaging technologies (satelittes etc). Love to see this post Emily! Here is an excerpt from my piece that is most relevant to home/stoves:
"A recent study measuring methane levels in the air above six dense, urban areas along the east coast, highlights a portion of the natural gas supply chain exhibiting actual rates of leakage (attributable to the distribution and use of natural gas in these cities) that are close to a tenfold increase above the Gridded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inventory for natural gas sectors. According to this study, the revealed underestimation warrants adding another 18.62 MMTCO2 eq to the GHG inventory (and that’s just for the cities measured in the study).3 The study evaluated methane leakage (among other gases) by flying planes over six cities from Washington DC to Boston to collect samples and analyze the air. The EPA estimate of methane leakage from the same urban areas accounted for leakage from the natural gas distribution system, but it did not account for leaks occurring ‘beyond the meter’ – at homes and businesses. The study posits that underestimation of leakage and/or not including these end-use emissions is responsible for the inaccuracy of the EPA’s estimate."
Love the article, love the approach it takes. There may be another side benefit to the focus and debate about gas stoves is that maybe there are folks out there who, for the first time ever, actually stop to read about the indoor air pollution part of the debate. When it affects them and their kids directly today, they tend to read a little deeper. By coming to terms with the damage the stoves are causing in their own home, they at least start to go down the road of paying attention to what scientists have been saying, and not so much what pop culture and slick marketing is saying. I hope so anyway.
One thing I've not seen in this conversation is electric induction cooktops.
Most electric cooktops are resistance based, which is a very poor substitute for gas and, I suspect, one of the prime reasons that people are so loyal to their gas stoves. Slow to heat up. Slow to cool down. A poor cooking experience. Who wouldn't prefer gas?
But electric induction cooking is a whole different world. It heats up almost instantly and gives fast, precise control, much like gas stoves. The "downsides" are that it's expensive to install and you have to use induction-ready cookware, but those are both one-time costs for a lifetime of environmentally friendly cooking.
I have a question that I’ve thought about for a while, and this article brings it up directly by talking about the purpose of having these conversations about gas stoves or plastic straws to try and undo the conditioning, which I agree with and is a great way to put it, so I thought to ask it.
And that is how do you personally view societies responsibility in changing their behavior on gas stoves or plastic, or really anything harmful? Like do you have faith that society, if given enough information will do the right thing? Or is there a point where you go “the information is out there, society hasn’t changed their behavior, so it is what it is”? And I guess it would be different if we had time, but in terms of the climate crisis at least, we don’t.
At least from the article you linked about anti-straw it doesn’t sound positive for changing that conditioning, at least for straws?
“One interesting case study is the city of Hong Kong. Since 2017, the city’s annual plastic straw usage has dropped by 700 million, a 40% decrease from prior annual use. However, Hong Kong’s overall plastic waste saw a 10% increase between 2017 and 2018 alone.”
I personally don’t have faith and I’m struggling with whether or not that is reasonable or healthy.
And another question I have, I thought of because of that same linked article, and is also something I have been struggling with, is how to think about numbers that illustrate the immense scale of the problem we are facing
“Plastic straws only comprise 0.025% of the roughly 8 million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean each year.”
8 MILLION tons of plastic. Or the 33 BILLION tons of CO2 emitted every year that eats into the 50/50 500 billion CO2 carbon budget.
Those sort of numbers drive me crazy, and I obsess over the absolutely immense scale of the problem of getting that 33 billion tons of CO2 down to zero in a short time frame for example. And again I struggle over this being healthy or not.
So I was wondering if you have some way of internalizing those sorts of stats.
But at least there is the comfort that you are writing about this stuff, so thank you for that.
Methane takes a decade to dissapate?! Wow, didn’t know that!
I’ve always wondered why we don’t hear more on composting food waste and now I really can’t understand. Methane from rotten food, diverting garbage from land fill plus an amazing soil improver from it all.
Thanks for another great article.
Fossil fuel air pollution is killing ±10 million people per year (through respiratory and cardiovascular diseases). Now it turns out that gas stoves are linked to one in eight cases of childhood asthma. They're calling it gasthma. "When they’re cooking, gas stoves release fumes of nitrogen dioxide, benzene, carbon monoxide and other nasties into your home. Some experts liken it to living with a smoker." (Chris Hatch, Canada's National Observer) Just how much do gas-stove-cookin' parents love their kids?
Thank you for reframing the straw discussion - and whether it “matters” or not, there really appear to be fewer straws on beaches now - but I feel like the topic of gas stoves can be a more positive conversation by just leaning into the elegance of induction cooking. I’m an avid cook who has a 40-year allegience to gas stoves, but when I tried an induction stove I was converted. I stumbled across such a stove for the first time in Germany and couldn’t believe we didn’t have them. With all this new research identifying terrible health impacts of gas on children’s lungs, it’s a great problem-solver. Even the cookware issue can be spun better - our cast iron frying pans and enamelware, staples of my cooking, work fine, and we had no trouble finding a few inexpensive other iron-magnetic pots. (take a magnet with you to a thrift store to test pots). Cost of a new stove is not that much more than a new resistance stove. People’s ambivalence about induction cooking is probably largely fear of the unknown and the whole emotional thing about food! Well believe me, food is my focus as much as it is anyone’s. If you need a new stove, just try induction when you’re looking around. It’s more expensive than a metal straw, but it also matters at least a little more!
I will vouch for the importance of the gas stove. When we were working to pass Berkeley's first in the nation ban on gas hookups in new residential construction a few years ago, cooking with gas was the biggest psychological (and hence political) impediment. Small slice of the methane pie, but major roadblock to the policy. We tackled it head on with a show and tell (and demo and taste) campaign about the wonders of induction cooking and won enough converts to carry the day. The rest is history... More about induction cooking and other things building electrification at https://www.climateaction.center/e-building
Thanks for the article, spot on as always.
I wonder how we incorporate storytelling into this aspect of fighting Climate Change. Data tables and percentages don't change peoples' minds, but linking those details to parts of their life can. I'm imaging a conversation that might briefly note the science that pivots to talking about how my son or your daughter's asthma is less acute since switching to electric cooking. What do you all think?
Friendly neighborhood reader here again. :) I acknowledge that gas stoves will need to be relinquished to the mountains of landfilled appliances at some point in the future. Until the recent media flurry, I thought the primary concerns about methane where in leaks around natural gas fracking wells, and how the leaks there are likely underestimated. I didn't need a conversation focused on gas stoves to become aware of that no more than a plastic straw made me aware of our plastic pollution problems. Maybe it is an introduction to some, but then where have they been the past 10-20 years? And it is an interesting parallel to pick, especially when it comes to the need to curb our disposable culture.
Take then someone who has perhaps a recently new gas stove, or a well-functioning older one - out of no particular allegiance to gas cooking, just simply out of what their home is configured as - now seeing the flurry of attention how they should ditch it for electric. It was installed properly with no signs of leaks, has an electric ignitor and probably doesn't fall into the referenced Stanford study of a whopping 53 homes. A household appliance that may last another 20 years - all the carbon footprint that went into manufacturing it - tossed away over what appears to be minimal contribution to the larger issue. It certainly sounds counterproductive to addressing a disposable culture worst case. Then, your shiny new appliance (with its new manufacturing carbon footprint) to be hooked up to an electrical grid, driven mostly by coal and natural gas in their area. (hopefully to become greener as the grid changes) It is chastising the individual homeowner for cutting down a tree while commercial development is clear-cutting swaths of forest down the road.
That isn't meant to be taken as a right-wing talking point or gas industry propoganda - as those drive me crazy. But some sources provide ample fuel to play into their overblown narratives. It is increasingly difficult to sort through the muck to understand relative size of problems.