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Gas stoves and the problematic politics of sacrifice

To reach sustainable progress on climate and health issues, we need to focus on what’s easy — not what’s hard.

A person lights a gas burner inside a household kitchen
Davide Bonaldo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

For years, I’ve been interested in air pollution — and you should be too.

I’ve covered research finding that dust storms in the Sahara lead to 22 percent higher child mortality and evidence that students do worse in school when exposed to poor air quality. My colleagues have written that indoor air pollution leads to 4 million deaths a year, mostly in Africa and Asia, and that rollbacks in US air quality regulations can contribute to the premature deaths of thousands of Americans.

While we often focus on outdoor air pollution — think smog caused by fossil-fuel power plants and car traffic — indoor air quality tends to be undercovered, given its enormous impact. But over the past month, thanks to the frenzy over gas stoves, indoor air quality has hit the discourse — and the messy, nuance-free conversation that resulted has done the cause of cleaner air no favors.

The gas stove frenzy

For those of you who aren’t extremely online, the gas stove fight went like this: first, a study came out examining the relationship between gas stoves and childhood asthma, which the media jumped on.

Gas stove pollution causes 12.7 percent of childhood asthma,” the Washington Post reported. “It’s like having car exhaust in a home,” one of the co-authors told the Post. Then, citing the news, some activists called for a government ban on gas stoves.

The Post story came out just after a comment by a regulator at the Consumer Product Safety Commission that was widely taken as implying a gas stove ban was on the table. While some cities have in fact implemented bans on gas stoves in new construction, the Biden administration, responding to the outrage, has said they won’t pursue a nationwide ban.

But speculation about gas stove bans naturally produced backlash, with many people declaring they’d never let the government take away their gas stoves. There was then a counter-backlash, and a counter-counter-backlash, all connected to debates about what kind of cooking you need a gas stove for, why gas stoves are mostly owned by rich people, whether you can just use the range hood, whether government bans are an appropriate response to minor health hazards, and much, much more.

Why did this debate ignite the way it did? Gas stoves, as the name suggests, burn natural gas, which creates climate impacts, and many people suspected — reasonably, I’d argue — that the sudden concern with their health effects had more to do with climate than with health.

That’s because, as the economist Emily Oster pointed out in Slate, the original study on asthma that touched off the controversy was flawed. It doesn’t find — as many headlines represented it — that pollution from gas stoves is responsible for 12.7 percent of childhood asthma. Rather, it cited pre-existing research which found that asthma is more common in families with gas stoves, and then tried to extrapolate how much asthma might be stove-related if those previous findings are right.

But families with gas stoves are different in many ways from families that don’t have gas stoves, and ultimately, the size of the effect is quite small. The states with the highest rates of gas stove usage don’t have notably high rates of asthma, which indicates that how you cook your food may not have a strong connection to future breathing problems.

Gas stoves do have greater negative impacts on health than electric-powered induction stoves, emitting pollutants like nitrogen oxides. But all in all, that effect isn’t big — or at least, not as big as the vociferousness of the debate suggested.

It’s important to remember that we make trade-offs involving our health every day. But we need to make those trade-offs in the smartest possible way, and the culture war furor over gas stoves only makes that harder.

Solving problems: the easy way

It’s absolutely worth trying to reduce indoor air pollution. But the cheapest, easiest way to do so, for most Americans, is to run your stove’s hood fan, or keep your windows open while cooking. Next on the list is to get a large air filter and run it continuously (we use Coway and BlueAir, based on a Wirecutter recommendation).

Air filters appear to improve respiratory health, improve heart health in the elderly, and reduce pollutants significantly, with an effect size that looks a lot larger than that associated with replacing a gas stove. (One drawback: air filters can’t completely filter the nitrogen oxides produced by gas stoves, which may make replacing your stove worth it for parents of children with asthma.)

For most of us, replacing your stove is an expensive step compared to the benefits you’ll get in cleaner air. And cost does matter: if we want to improve indoor air quality broadly, we should focus on the cheapest, most convenient interventions. Cooking with your hood fan on or the windows open costs nothing. Getting and continuously running a good air purifier in your home is relatively cheap, and it genuinely can make a difference in your health and especially the health of your small children, regardless of how you cook your food.

If you want to go ahead and swap out your gas stove for an induction stove, go for it. But if you’re freaked out about the possibility the air in your home is making your kids sick, start with the easy steps — and relax about the gas.

Exaggeration isn’t good activism

From a climate perspective, while gas stoves can leak methane, they’re a tiny fraction of methane emissions — only 3 percent of household gas emissions, and those household emissions are a small share of overall emissions. Trying to scare people about gas stoves for the sake of the climate means picking what is likely to be a politically unpopular fight, while passing up easier progress on more significant issues.

Some experts have defended the gas-stove approach as creating a “gateway” to then further educate the public about methane in general. But I don’t think that’s the takeaway when people see unreasonable scare stories about their gas stoves circulating, accompanied by admonitions to replace gas with something that’s not that much better for health or the climate, and often much more expensive. I don’t think people get educated about the dangers of methane this way — I think they become exasperated and distrustful, which makes the job of communicating about real dangers and real trade-offs harder.

Fundamentally, it’s the job of the media to give people an accurate understanding of new scientific results. They need to be contextualized, and they need to be presented accurately. In this case, I think science communicators dropped the ball. Scare language about car exhaust in your home isn’t appropriate for a deeply uncertain and limited finding like the one in the original asthma study.

Warnings about a risk to your kids should be accompanied by real and actionable advice — and that advice needs to respect the limited budgets that most families are dealing with. Spreading questionable information and failing to inform people about reasonable solutions to their problems isn’t creating a “gateway” to educate them about climate change; it’s alienating, scaring, and confusing them — at real costs to their health, since indoor air quality does actually matter!

The whole saga feels to me like it’s part of a climate politics of sacrifice, where making big demands of people — replace your stove, at significant expense! Ban such stoves, at even greater expense! — simply feels more appropriate to a big problem like climate change than making small demands. But problems will be much easier to solve, and much likelier to actually get solved, if there are cheap, easy solutions. It’s better politics and better policy to push for easy solutions than hard solutions.

Hard sacrifices make some people feel good, and are divisive in a way that helps them dominate the discourse. Easy fixes … cause the problem to go away. But causing the problem to go away is — at least hopefully — what we’re all here for. The point isn’t to win in the arena of Twitter; the point is to prevent kids from developing respiratory problems.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!