Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter on local & state climate action.
As a person who reports and writes about climate change, fossil fuels, the energy transition, and everything associated, I've painted myself into a very tight rhetorical corner with one choice: I try to avoid the term “clean energy”.
It… bugs me, but it would be a lot easier to use it.
So why do I avoid this extremely common, extremely relevant phrase for my reporting? I think it’s a wildly imprecise term for a collection of technologies and approaches that have different benefits and trade-offs. That's amplified when when we associate (inaccurately) cleanliness with moral value.
But there's something more important than my language pet peeve: the abuse of the term in service of marketing questionable climate solutions and sometimes even in defining policy. Think "clean coal" or an effort by gas pipeline companies to convince younger people that a fossil fuel is “clean”, or the EU agreeing to gas — in certain situations — in their taxonomy of sustainable energy sources, a definition intended to avoid greenwashing in the first place.
The abuse of “clean energy” is also related to another linguistic conundrum I deal with all the time: natural gas. As Rebecca Leber at Vox has written, while the gas industry didn’t invent the term, they’ve leaned into the powerful positive association that humans have with the term “natural”, even as plenty of “natural” things can harm us:
More than half of participants had a positive view of natural gas, but the advantage shrank immediately when you called it “natural methane gas” or “methane gas,” as well as for “fossil gas” and “fracked gas.” A second survey asked 500 participants to word-associate with “natural gas.” Only a tiny portion of the respondents, fewer than 6 percent, associated natural gas with methane, showing, according to the researchers, “that the relationship between the two is not a typical top-of-mind association.”
The study unsurprisingly found that the word “natural” biases Americans in favor of gas. But it also showed a key ignorance that has been exploited by the gas industry: The public doesn’t understand that the gas is essentially the same as methane, a pollutant. Millions of Americans cook with gas every day, but they don’t necessarily realize it is a fossil fuel that’s being piped into their stoves.
If you’ve been paying especially close attention over the course of this newsletter, you’ll notice I try to avoid the phrase “natural gas” the same way I try to avoid “clean energy”. My solution, generally, has been to simply refer to it as gas. The main issue there is Americans use that word for the fuel we put into our cars. So when I’m writing, I need to make sure the context is clear that I’m talking about the methane-dominant gas that both powers electricity generation and is piped into our homes to heat and cook. I’m effectively turning up the difficulty on writing. Precision comes at the cost of simplicity.
There’s no consensus, even among climate change advocates, on natural gas (other than they don’t like the term). I don’t love any of the alternatives either: methane gas, fracked gas, fossil gas, etc. All of these have the benefit of being more precise, but natural gas has, as Leber writes, “a 200-year head start”. From the standpoint of making sure as wide as possible of a readership understands what I mean, none of the alternatives are sure bets.
I don’t anticipate “clean energy” will go away as a shorthand anytime soon, and I don’t want to spend more time thinking about language than reporting on what’s actually happening in the effort to limit global warming. But if the next time you see something being called “clean energy,” you stop and think: “What does that actually mean in this context?,” then I’ll have done at least part of my job.
What do you think? Am I being too particular on this?