The facts and strategy behind the outrage over rumors of a ban on gas stoves
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
All right. This rumor was out there last week. The federal government planned to ban gas cooking stoves and possibly even seize them. Not true. But it all started when a government official said in an interview that gas stoves could face more regulation on health grounds. That provoked a cycle of outrage, mostly from the right. Here's Sean Hannity on Fox News.
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SEAN HANNITY: But now, not only is Biden coming for your paycheck, but he's also coming for your stove. You heard me right. The White House is now attempting to ban all gas ovens and burners.
MARTÍNEZ: With us to explain both the facts and strategy behind the outrage are NPR's Jeff Brady from the climate desk and Lisa Hagen, who reports on how conspiracy theories work. Jeff, Lisa, welcome.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Thanks.
LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTÍNEZ: All right, Jeff, let's start with you. And let's get some facts straight, too. What do we know about the risks gas stoves pose to both the environment and public health?
BRADY: Well, the risk for the environment, it's more about what gas stoves have come to represent. And that's the practice of burning natural gas in homes. Scientists who model what needs to change to reach U.S. climate goals generally agree that homes, like cars, will need to switch to electricity generated from cleaner fuels like nuclear, wind and solar. Now, on the health front, there's a growing body of evidence that children and those with breathing problems, such as asthma, can experience short and maybe even long-term health effects. The American Public Health Association just issued a statement calling gas cooking stoves a public health concern. The group called on federal agencies to recognize that and do more to educate people, plus conduct more research on health effects.
MARTÍNEZ: Lisa, so if the scientific research suggests there are health risks for people, I mean, how is the pro-gas stove argument being framed?
HAGEN: Well, a lot of the most successful political messaging on the right is not about facts. Most of the punchiest TV segments or tweets we heard about last week came after federal officials had already clarified that there is no ban in the works. So it's better to think of moments like this as a well-established reflex that reinforces a larger worldview. The specifics of gas stoves is incidental. The word that resonates is ban. Banning things is about top-down control. It fits nicely into readymade stories about government control or tyranny. The feds are going to come to your house and take something. And so another worldview gas stoves fit very well is the supposed absurdity of the left. Here's an example from TikTok.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So from today forward, I just want it to be known that my gas stove now identifies as electric.
HAGEN: So to most people, stoves are a pretty random household object to suddenly be making news. So there's an opening to mock the left, which is something you see leveraged constantly against shifting ideas about gender or systemic racism. This is riffing. It doesn't really require evidence, just repetition of existing tropes, which researchers say is really crucial to forming belief.
MARTÍNEZ: And this story went from an interview in Bloomberg News to TikTok in just - what? - like, a few days, right? So how do these themes go viral so fast?
HAGEN: Money and the desire for exposure. That drives a lot of the speed of this reactive messaging. That TikTok example has almost 2 million views. And her other content is a fraction of that. So views and likes can seem like really juvenile motivations. But there are figures on the right who've used exactly those things to become prominent hyper-partisan influencers. And in the meantime, if you've got books or T-shirts or something to sell, a conspiracy to promote, quick hit outrage cycles are prime opportunities. That goes double for politicians. Not only does a witty, well-timed meme bring approval and keep you seeming relevant, these are excellent opportunities to fundraise, which we saw plenty of last week. Want to keep your gas stove? Donate now.
MARTÍNEZ: Jeff, the policy debate over gas stoves has been cooking for a lot longer than last week. So how far back have we seen this issue? And what does it look like in the past?
BRADY: You know, for decades, the natural gas industry, utilities and stove manufacturers, they've dealt with this indoor air quality issue. The industry has long known things like you should turn your vent hood on every time you turn on the gas stove, even if you're just boiling water. The industry doesn't talk about that a lot. Much more prominent is their cooking with gas campaign from utilities. And they've long hired spokespeople, like chefs, to convey a message that being a good cook means cooking with gas.
MARTÍNEZ: Well, Lisa, I mean, does this kind of lobbying campaign actually work? And are there any similar examples playing out in right-wing media?
HAGEN: Yeah. So in comparison to a consumer safety official talking about bans, absolutely. Jeff's bit about the chefs is a really good example of why right-wing messaging is so successful. That campaign is about something personal. It's an argument about cooking at home, which is much more relatable and tangible then complex issues like climate change or public health and how gas stoves contribute over time to these things. Those causes are about collective action and the harms that impact everybody, which is, you know, other people - far more abstract, psychologically speaking, than talking about my family, my cooking.
Similarly, whether these things are true or not, narratives about standing up against a government coming to take your things, or another outgroup like the left, those give people a feeling of individual significance that they might not otherwise feel. And psychologists will tell you that's a concept political messaging on the right has done much better with in recent years than scientists or regulators.
MARTÍNEZ: So Jeff, gas stoves seem to be having a bit of a moment right now. Is the government actually going to do something this time?
BRADY: You know, this moment does seem different. And it's coming at a key time because the Consumer Product Safety Commission is researching this now. It's opening an information gathering process in March. And you have one of the commissioners, Richard Trumka, who this all started with, saying that they should leave open the remote possibility of banning the sale of new gas stoves entirely. There's been a lot of misinformation about what Trumka said there. But I think that statement is an indication of how seriously the commission takes this issue now. Plus, there are quite a few climate and environmental groups that are keeping this issue on the front burner (laughter).
MARTÍNEZ: Look, Jeff and Lisa, I don't know what's going to happen with gas stoves. As long as when I'm on the basketball court hitting shot after shot after shot, like the Steph Curry of public radio that I am - as long as I can say that I'm cooking with gas, I'll be fine.
BRADY: All right (laughter).
MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Jeff Brady and Lisa Hagen, thanks to you both.
BRADY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE FEARLESS FLYERS AND VULF'S "ACE OF ACES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.