A new skirmish in the climate culture war began last month when Republicans became outraged over an energy-saving feature on gaming devices that users can opt to use. “First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” Texas senator Ted Cruz misleadingly tweeted.
This comes just a few weeks after Republicans expressed anger over the suggestion that gas stoves could be banned in favor of more efficient and safer electric and induction cooktops.
These reactions are part of a broader trend that has been growing in the Republican party for years: a strong disdain for energy efficiency. Now, programs and regulations designed to help make homes more comfortable and save homeowners and renters money have come under fire. By going after these policies, Republicans are also quietly enacting a tax on the poor.
Republicans have actively rolled back or blocked energy-efficient measures at the federal and state levels in recent years. The Trump administration undid regulations that would have made everything from furnaces to shower heads to light bulbs more efficient. (The Biden administration has since rolled back many of the Trump rollbacks.) Former president Donald Trump himself infamously stoked outrage on the subject of flushing toilets and the hue of LED lightbulbs.
Republicans have also taken similar measures at the state level. After some municipalities in Florida banned gas hookups for new construction, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in 2021 that banned banning gas hookups. (Yes, it’s a tongue twister.) Last month, DeSantis also said he is backing a permanent sales tax exemption for gas stoves.
All this, despite the fact that induction stoves – an increasingly popular electric option – are more efficient than their gas counterparts. This assault on efficiency imposes a heavy burden on the poorest households in the US. Research shows that poor households spend four times as much of their income on energy as households that are well-off. The research also found disparities held true across race, with minority households spending more than white ones. That’s in part because those homes are old and inefficient, with issues such as poor insulation or subpar furnaces, stoves and water heaters.
Racist zoning practices like redlining mean many of these homes are located in neighborhoods that are hotter, which can increase the need to use energy to stay cool as well. These conditions lead to higher bills, in areas where households have less income to put toward them.
“That’s the very definition of energy burden,” Sharonda Williams-Tack, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club working on energy justice, said. “I know [of households] where 30% of their overall income is going towards [the] energy bill just because you make so little money.”
While some programs can help cover the cost of some customers’ bills, others provide assistance in the form of rebates. “But if you’re not actually addressing the root cause of the issue and making the home energy efficient, then it’s not really helping to solve the problem,” Williams-Tack said.
Progress on that front has been slow. An American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy analysis released last year shows that all the measures utilities are taking are largely failing. At present rates, it would take utilities 59 years to provide energy efficiency services and upgrades to all low-income households.
High energy bills don’t just cost low-income households more money. Some research shows that falling behind on bills can also raise the risk of the state taking children away, which Williams-Tack says can force parents to make hard decisions. (Other research has shown failing to pay bills doesn’t significantly raise that risk, though.)
Republican opposition to energy efficiency shows the current state of politicization holding back climate action.
“There’s a tendency to think about energy, energy efficiency [and] fuel substitution as these rational processes where we make decisions based on cost and risk and benefit,” Cara Daggett, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, said. But that “misses what a lot of environmental historians and humanists have pointed to, which is that energy is also a cultural matter”.
The outrage over gas stoves and Xboxes, said Daggett, “reveals is that climate change is really a threat to what environmental studies call a ‘petro culture’, or a culture of not only fossil fuels, but of endless energy”.
The idea of endless energy has become deeply engrained in the American dream the end of the second world war. One of the earliest manifestations of this philosophy came with the rise of the suburbs and urban sprawl, which necessitated a car in every garage. Now, the fight over energy efficiency – at least in the eyes of Republicans – could undo that order.
Daggett said the efforts to improve efficiency and phase out the use of fossil fuels, starting at home, can be seen by those on the right as “a real challenge to the American story”, much like DeSantis banning AP African American studies.
Absent federal intervention – which is unlikely in the current political climate – advocates are pushing for states with friendly legislatures to become more directly involved in home efficiency improvements. Clarke Gocker, the director of policy and strategy at Push Buffalo, said many low-income homes deal with mold, asbestos, ageing roofing and other issues that need to fixed before even considering efficiency upgrades.
“One of the things we are calling for, along with a lot of other groups in the state, is the creation of a fund that would address those kinds of conditions really as a precondition to investment in heat pumps and rooftop solar and other things that are critical [to improving efficiency],” he said.
Doing so would help ensure dwellings are ready for electrification in the first place.