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WALCHER: How Unthinkable Ideas Become Policy

  The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published an  article  last December claiming gas stoves are respons...

 The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published an article last December claiming gas stoves are responsible for 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases. A Consumer Product Safety Commission member immediately proposed a ban on the “hidden hazard” of gas stoves, and numerous leftist politicians jumped on the bandwagon. A political firestorm ensued, prompting the Biden administration to walk the proposal back. The Commission’s chairman — and even the president — denied any plan to ban gas stoves. But don’t be fooled. They are not abandoning the idea – they are moving the Overton window.

Joe Overton died in a plane crash at the age of 43, but he is fondly remembered by political scientists for illustrating that there is a range of policies that are politically acceptable to the mainstream at a particular time. Joe was executive vice president of the Mackinac Center, a state-level think tank in Michigan. He explained in a pamphlet for donors that an idea’s political viability does not depend on what politicians want, but on whether it falls within this range of acceptability. The job of think tanks is to push ideas enough to move the “window” of what is acceptable to most people, so the idea is forever known as the “Overton window.”

Another think tank strategist named Josh Trevino further refined the concept by illustrating the range within the “window” – first unthinkable, then radical, acceptable, sensible, popular, and finally policy. Ideas moving from the extreme left wing to the center would span that range, and then the range would reverse moving from the center to the extreme right wing. Thus, an idea on either side, once considered radical or even unthinkable, if pushed long enough, might eventually become acceptable or even sensible, and might then have a chance of adoption as policy. It is precisely what is happening with the left’s war on fossil fuels.

A generation ago, almost all the electricity in America came from coal. Now it comes mostly from natural gas, after twenty years of shutting down coal mines and coal-fired power plants. Natural gas burns cleaner and is almost as abundant, but is nonetheless a fossil fuel, so the attack on gas is also well underway. Thirty years ago, liberal strategists theorized that if Americans could be convinced that their use of affordable and abundant energy was destroying the planet, compromising the Earth’s capacity to support life, the idea of banning oil, gas, and coal might move from unthinkable to acceptable, and eventually popular. 

It has already worked with coal, which Americans have mostly abandoned, scarcely noticing the 75 percent rise in utility bills during those 20 years (from 8.72 cents per kilowatt hour in 2003 to 15.64 cents by 2023, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). So, the idea of weaning the public from fossil fuels has already moved from unthinkable, past radical and acceptable, at least all the way to sensible, and somewhat popular. Parts of it have now become policy.

The attack on fossil fuels continues, further empowered by the general public’s acceptance. A complete ban on gas appliances is not far behind, administration denials notwithstanding. At the local level, Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York City have already enacted bans on gas stoves, ovens, or even furnaces in new buildings. New York’s governor has asked the legislature for a statewide ban, like that already adopted in California. One Georgetown professor calls natural gas bans “low-hanging fruit,” saying local governments can make a significant impact on the climate by banning gas. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, V.P. Kamala Harris, and even First Lady Jill Biden, all endorsed the ban despite the reported fact that they all have gas stoves. It sounds radical, but that’s how the Overton Window gets moved.

Consider how American politics works in this era of bitter divisiveness. If the most liberal extremists propose something — anything — the most conservative leaders will immediately criticize it. That prompts all Democrats, not just the extremists, to consider the idea more seriously and kicks off an us-against-them debate. Before you know it, Americans are divided almost half and half – on an idea they all considered unthinkable not long ago. 

By the way, the cause of childhood asthma remains unknown, but it is not gas stoves. That article has already been widely discredited, as asthma is mainly triggered by allergic reactions and there are no allergens in natural gas. But this debate is not about asthma. It is about the unrelenting campaign against fossil fuels, one tactic that activists are using to transform America. 

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