A new study from the Yale Program on Climate Communications finds that people have significantly more favourable feelings about the term ‘natural gas’ than they do ‘methane,’ despite natural gas being 70-90% methane (Lacroix et al 2020). 

Earth.Org takes a closer look.

The study surveyed almost 2,000 American adults, asking them to report their feelings about the following four terms: ‘natural gas,’ ‘natural methane gas,’ ‘methane,’ and ‘methane gas.’ Lecroix et al (2020) found that the term ‘natural gas’ “evokes more positive feelings” than the other methane terms. Furthermore, the terms ‘methane’ and ‘methane’ gas produce more negative feelings compared to ‘natural gas’. Overarchingly, the study found that adding the word ‘natural’ increases positive feelings. 

This pattern is consistent when controlling for political affiliations too. The graph below shows that Democrats and Republicans report similar trends in attitudes toward the terms, however, Democrats demonstrate more negative feelings across the board compared to Republicans. 

natural gas versus methane persception lagnuage democrats republicans

Associations with the terms 

When asked to come up with three words which they associate with the terms ‘natural gas’ and ‘methane’, respondents again demonstrate more positive associations with the term ‘natural gas’. In the following word cloud , ‘natural gas’ is associated with themes of clean, energy, fuel and cooking; while the term ‘methane’ evoked themes of gas, cows, greenhouse gas, and global warming. 

natural gas versus methane language perception

Why it matters 

The term natural gas functions as a form of greenwashing – the process of conveying a misleading impression of a product or company in order to appear more environmentally friendly. The inclusion of the word ‘natural’ reframes the product as more environmentally friendly and creates distance from the sobering reality that natural gas is mostly methane. This study reveals that people understand that methane is bad for the environment and largely responsible for global warming and climate change, but are misled into thinking that natural gas is cleaner and less harmful. 

The Takeaway 

Branding matters. How products, whether energy sources or household items, are branded and framed impacts how we perceive it and how we use it. If you knew your home was heated by methane as opposed to natural gas, how would you feel?

This article was written by Lola Robinson. 

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