By Stan Cox
“In Real Time” is a monthly series on our blog by Stan Cox, author of The Path to a Livable Future and The Green New Deal and Beyond. The series follows the climate, voting rights, and justice movements as they navigate America’s unfolding crisis of democracy.
Read previous “In Real Time” dispatches here. Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for audio editions of all dispatches, and hear monthly conversations with Stan on the Anti-Empire Project podcast (scroll down). Also see the evolving “In Real Time” visual work in the illustrated archive.
A Fox News headline writer called it “Biden’s War on Your Kitchen.” Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel wrote, “The reason gas stoves are in the news is simple: There is a coordinated, calculated—and well-funded—strategy to kill them off. It’s the joint enterprise of extremely powerful climate groups, working with Biden administration officials.” (“Extremely powerful climate groups”? Where can I find them?)
The Great Gas Stove Freakout of 2023 was not a strictly right-wing or one-party phenomenon. Panic spread along the spectrum, from liberal chefs to Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In the Senate, Republican Ted Cruz teamed up with Democrat Joe Manchin to sponsor a bill that would bar the government from enforcing any rule that prohibits the sale of gas stoves or even makes them more expensive.
Gas ranges, though, are widely associated with the urban foodie culture that the right loathes, and two-thirds of them are installed in blue states. Similarly, for home heating, the Washington Post notes that “gas dominates in densely populated states with Democratic governors, including Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey [while] electricity reigns in more rural states with Republican leaders, including Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina,” but that state governments in New York, California, and Washington are moving to phase out gas heating.
Despite the associations between blue politics and gas’s blue flame, the lion’s share of outrage over the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s warnings about the health hazards posed by gas stoves has come from MAGA world. And the stove affair quickly flared up into generalized appliance paranoia. Fox News, for one, warned that Uncle Sam is coming after your “water heaters, furnaces, clothes washers, dishwashers, ceiling fans, microwave ovens and shower heads” as well. (Shower heads?)
MAGA politics has also woven fossil-fueled rhetoric into much of its routine culture-war and hate messaging. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee Chair and notorious gasbag Jim Jordan tweeted, “First, they came for your guns. Then, your gas stoves. Then, your gas cars. What’s next?” It was a tasteless attempt to parody the poem First They Came, in which theologian Martin Niemöller lamented society’s early indifference toward Nazi genocide. Jordan augmented his tweet’s hate value by choosing to spit it out on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As the nation kicked off 2023 by arguing over home appliances, carbon continued to waft skyward at a dangerous rate. Greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022. This means we’d need an abrupt U-turn to decrease emissions an average 5.3 percent per year between now and 2030, the Biden administration’s goal via the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA).
Emissions reductions that rapid would be wholly unprecedented (with the exception of the pandemic year 2020), and the IRA contains no surefire mechanism for achieving such cuts. With the House of Representatives now under MAGA control, the chances that Congress will pass any laws in the next two years to quickly and directly slash emissions have slid from very poor to zero.
GOP leaders insist nevertheless that they have plans to deal with climate in the 118th Congress. The energy and environment site E&E News reported in January, “In the coming months, Republicans intend to vote on a series of bills taking aim at existing federal regulations the GOP believes is stifling domestic clean energy production and innovation.” Sounds good, until it becomes clear that “clean energy” in this context translates as “fossil gas.”
The core of the GOP’s “Let America Build” strategy for “clean energy” is to expedite permits for extracting, distributing, and exporting gas, while taking a wrecking ball to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (which is, in E&E’s words, “a bedrock environmental protection law sacrosanct to many Democrats”).
“Let America Build” claims to “make it easier to produce energy and innovate in America,” and that, it says, should apply “just as equally to oil and gas as it does to renewables and other innovative technologies.” The fossil fuel industry and its representatives in Congress say they just want a level playing field—oh, and a little more imperialism as well. E&E reports, “House Republicans are also emphatic that the United States should focus on forcing other countries to use clean energy”—remember, that’s fossil gas—“and reduce their emissions rather than cutting off [US] domestic production.” Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia elaborated, telling E&E, “What we need to do is be addressing these Third World countries and developing countries and what they’re doing.”
Such policy positions grow out of the tight bonds between MAGA politicians and the world of fossil fuels. Among the top GOP campaign donors are companies such as Koch Industries and Energy Transfer Inc. (of Dakota Access Pipeline infamy), according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The broader MAGA universe draws similar nourishment from oil and gas wells. IPS found that the Koch Charitable Foundation, for instance, supports a fund called Donors Trust that donates generously to climate denial, misinformation, and hate groups.
Target proxy pollution
With Congress in a straitjacket on climate, the Biden administration reportedly aims to do as much as possible through executive action and sheer persuasion. A Supreme Court ruling last summer complicated things, however, by restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to directly limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Nevertheless, as the Washington Post reports, the Court’s decision made clear that the EPA
still has the power under parts of the Clean Air Act to limit conventional pollutants from operations directly on-site at these plants. And environmental groups have pushed the agency to use a wave of updates under long-established rules that would reduce that pollution, but also likely lower greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product, in addition to creating a new rule that targets power-plant greenhouse-gas emissions directly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan signaled last year he planned to do just that.
So the administration plans to make use of environmental protection laws that were not written for the purpose of mitigating climate change but could achieve at least some greenhouse gas reduction as a side effect. For example, in January, the EPA proposed to strengthen rules for reducing soot emissions, which endanger public health. Such a move would probably have beneficial effects on climate as well. A Democratic lobbyist told the Post, “All these things are about carbon emissions. But [the EPA] will never say it’s about carbon emissions. This is the smart approach. The Supreme Court may not like it, but there’s nothing they’ll be able to do about it.”
Such strategies may allow for end runs around the Supreme Court, but if the GOP takes the White House and/or both houses of Congress in next year’s elections, many executive actions will be reversed, and many IRA climate provisions will be attacked. That’s no reason not to take the actions, though. No one knows what 2024 will bring. And going after local pollution, whether or not it’s used as a proxy for climate damage, can advance environmental justice in marginalized communities. That brings us back to the administration’s push to phase out gas stoves.
The stove campaign is aimed at improving indoor air quality and health, but if successful, it will also reduce emissions of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas that is the chief component of fossil gas. Rebates to low- and middle-income households for replacing gas appliances with electric ones, including stoves, are a welcome feature of the IRA; however, many low-income families, including those that rent their homes, are unlikely to benefit. More broadly, ensuring environmental justice and protecting human health while keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere cannot be accomplished one household at a time. That requires action at the community and state levels as well.
For more than a year, Extinction Rebellion DC (XRDC) has run a campaign to thwart the plans of fossil gas provider Washington Gas to completely replace the city’s old, decrepit gas-piping infrastructure, at a cost of $5 billion. Instead, XRDC says, spending should go toward subsidizing the replacement of gas appliances with electric ones in the district’s many low-income homes, and ditching gas. Today—and far into the future, if the piping system is replaced—the city’s residents, 46 percent of them Black, are exposed to toxic methane and nitrogen dioxide fumes, with serious health consequences, especially for children. At the same time, the entire leaky Washington Gas system releases world-warming methane into the atmosphere.
XRDC activist Liz Karosick told me last year that some people had questioned the group’s choice of issues, asking questions like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But building momentum behind local demands, Karosick believes, could “change the trajectory, electrify the city. . . . We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.” Then, she said, “we can go back to expanding upon broader demands.”
The political landscape: still steep and rocky
In its plans for emissions cuts, the Biden administration is primarily targeting the electric power sector, aiming to eliminate coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2035. That would be an impressive feat, but it cannot be achieved solely through executive action. And it wouldn’t address our energy system as a whole. Only 25 percent of US greenhouse gases are emitted by the power sector, and phasing out the remaining emissions from transportation, manufacturing, cargo hauling, farming, road and building construction, and other sources will be much, much harder.
Only Congress can effectively address fossil fuels throughout the economy, and passage of laws for doing so won’t be possible until 2025 at the earliest. But even if the GOP takes an electoral drubbing in 2024, passage of the kind of sweeping, ambitious legislation required to effect a rapid phaseout of oil, gas, and coal (see Larry Edwards’ and my Cap and Adapt policy framework) would face fierce resistance from powers that be in government and business.
When I started writing “In Real Time” last spring, academics, journalists, and political figures were raising alarm over the possibility that in the 2022 and 2024 elections, MAGA forces could either win or cheat their way into full control over both houses of Congress, plus the White House, and not let go. On climate and broader ecological emergencies, I feared (among myriad other horrors) that autocratic extremists would then be in a position to block and bury federal climate policy for at least the next decade or more, ensuring that world-altering emissions would continue being pumped into the atmosphere.
Last fall’s elections made that outcome somewhat less likely but far from impossible. Now we are seeing how fanatics who have only the most tenuous control over a single chamber of the legislative branch can nonetheless hamstring an entire government—as long as they don’t care about lawmaking or governing, only about bringing down those who do. The apogee of this fanaticism will occur in a few months when the MAGA mob leverages the lifting of the debt ceiling to advance its interests and further increase its power.
Whatever it is that closes off our paths toward phasing out fossil fuels—a collapse triggered by the debt-ceiling extortion, stepped-up sabotage of government functioning, or some fresh catastrophe—the arena for climate action will probably be shifting even further into the hands of grassroots groups and communities like some of those I’ve spotlighted during the first eleven months of “In Real Time”: Extinction Rebellion DC, Start:Empowerment, the Great Plains Action Society (and the broader campaign against fossil carbon pipelines), the Poor People’s Campaign, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and many others.
In pursuing on-the-ground action, though, we must not ignore the threat that antidemocratic, power-hungry public officials in Washington and state capitals pose to our collective future. On that, I’ll turn to journalist Annika Brockschmidt for the last word:
So while the urge to laugh is understandable when Ted Cruz proposes doomsday scenarios—“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox” [in response to greater energy efficiency in gaming devices]—let’s not lose sight of what this latest outrage is meant to facilitate: to turn any cultural change, however small, into a story of victimization. This is the powerful driving force behind the Right’s grievances, and it provides them with permission to “hit back” as a form of “defense.” . . . By framing change or progress as an existential threat, the Right creates a siege mentality which is essential to the victimization narrative—no easy thing to do if your movement is experiencing a good deal of success (see the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives, despite the sizable disadvantage in popular support). It also galvanizes the anger of the base, which serves as a powerful motivator, and strengthens their own sense of having an imaginary target on their backs. All in all it’s fine to laugh about the Right’s unhinged crusade against gas stoves. Just don’t miss the strategy behind it—and the fact that sometimes a gas stove is not just a gas stove.