My wife and I eat at home most of the time, and she has inherited a love of cooking from her Italian parents. Our gas stove is used heavily. In the summer months, nothing else in our house uses natural gas so, most of the time, we use one therm of gas for the month. It’s not much. In terms of the carbon footprint of our monthly usage, you could compare it to driving a car once for about 8–10 city miles. One round-trip flight from Washington, D.C. to London for one person would have a carbon footprint equivalent to over five years of using our gas stove.
I wouldn’t have expected to be focusing attention on gas stoves, but they have suddenly become a hot political issue, pitting environmentalists against the natural gas industry—and, among others, chefs. In order to decarbonize, numerous towns, led by Berkeley, California, and now states are trying to ban the use of gas stoves, at least in new construction. Some places, such as Takoma Park, Maryland, have even banned the installation of gas stoves in existing structures.
However, many other states have now passed laws banning such bans. In early 2023, a federal appeals court threw out the Berkeley ban after it was challenged by the California Restaurant Association. The appeals court cited federal regulation of minimum energy efficiency in appliances from the 1970s, which specify that they preempt all local legislation on such matters. The refrigerator you buy at the store, for example, can be more efficient than the federal minimum, but it can’t be less efficient—not anywhere. Meanwhile, the bans have become a favorite meme of right-wing politicians; one legislator tweeted, “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
Nevertheless, we still might learn something from these debates about two ideas in Catholic social teaching that should guide our approach to the ecological crisis. There is a well-known passage in Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home) in which Pope Francis criticizes those who have “a growing ecological sensitivity” but do not change their “harmful habits.” He uses the example of the increased use of air conditioning. Some people make fun of the pope for this example, but, like my own parents, his generation—whether in Europe, America, or Argentina—grew up without AC. And AC certainly uses a lot more energy than a gas stove!
There may be no definitive moral teaching on air conditioners, but the broader claim from paragraph 49 of Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)—“the technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption”—is serious teaching. We use more energy than we should, especially compared to people in developing countries, who are increasing their usage just to have a sliver of our comfort and convenience.
So, what about that gas stove? Benedict’s teaching is an important application of the social principle of subsidiarity. He says that we must use less energy, but he doesn’t say how. He suggests possibilities. But he leaves it to citizens to make trade-offs in different circumstances. When I take the bus to work or my wife bikes to pick up groceries, which we do all the time, we are saving the equivalent energy of our gas cooking for the whole month. Takoma Park could do much more to lessen their carbon footprint by, say, banning vacations to Europe or eliminating whole-house air-conditioning in new construction. Such detailed rules provoke a backlash because they seem to violate subsidiarity so much.
The policy most in accord with subsidiarity is a general carbon tax. By taxing carbon intensity, you encourage everyone, especially large business users, to pay attention to the carbon they are using and economize—in the way that best fits their circumstances. By contrast, we should not pretend that eliminating residential gas stoves has an enormous impact on energy use.
Why then are environmentalists focused on this issue? They are focused on what Catholic social teaching calls “structures of sin,” which perpetuate sinful choices in favor of powerful interests—enriching gas producers and utilities who know that once you have the gas stove, you’ll probably replace it with another, and you’ll keep paying that basic service charge every month. More important, the more ambitious forms of gas stove bans also ban other gas appliances—dryers, hot water heaters, and furnaces. (These larger bans suggest supposed health concerns about gas stoves are beside the point.) The idea is that when you replace gas with electric appliances, you can get zero-emission electricity from solar, wind, and other sources. Environmentalists are looking decades into the future—and when it comes to buildings, it’s correct to do so; once you build something, it normally stays in use for a long time.
However, currently electricity is not at all clean in most places; indeed, much electricity is now supplied by plants powered by natural gas. Depending on circumstances, gas use is more efficient than electrical. Even long-term, it is unclear that we could generate enough zero-emission electricity not only to meet current needs, but also to meet the enormously expanded needs once every house in cold parts of the United States is heated by electric and has an electric car. Electric heat pumps are key to this equation, but their efficiency drops substantially in colder climates.
This whole approach assumes that technological innovation in structures alone will save us, leaving out the changed lifestyles that both popes call for. This lifestyle change is not simply buying some new technology (a favored American way to adopt a new lifestyle); it is living on less. Pope Francis calls it “sobriety” in Laudato Si’ and explains it is actually a much better way of living.
Do we need to address structural issues, too? Of course. We did so when faced with industrial and urban pollution in the 1970s, we did so when faced with the ozone hole in the 1980s, and we need to do so in the face of climate change and excessive use of fossil fuels. But rather than banning specific things, general carbon taxes on users and international agreements on overall emissions better confront structures of sin, consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. Tell your legislators you favor a carbon tax. That makes having a gas stove more expensive and pushes you to consider an induction stove. I hear they work quite well. But if you want to do more to save the planet, skip the long vacations and start driving your car less.
This article also appears in the July 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 7, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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