By Isabel Lyndon and Megan Bergeron
Highlighting the link between a product’s consumption and its carbon footprint could potentially alter harmful consumer behavior that contributes to climate change. Similar to how warning labels on cigarettes changed the smoking habits of some users, placing climate change disclosure labels on gas pumps could introduce discomfort that serves as an effective intervention that connects consumers to the dangerous reality of fossil fuels and illuminates the hidden costs of climate change.
Aware of the profound disconnect regarding fossil fuels, where they come from and their impact on climate change, Toronto-based lawyer Robert Shirkey founded Our Horizon, a nonprofit working towards requiring climate change disclosures on gas pumps.
According to Our Horizon, the first step in addressing a problem is facing it: Putting climate change disclosure labels on gas pumps would force consumers to face the carbon impact of their fossil fuel consumption. Increasing customer awareness might encourage them to reduce their carbon footprint by choosing public transit or being inspired to purchase an electric vehicle. Further, this increased awareness could affect other behaviors like how people choose to vote, or how local representatives voice support for sustainable policy measures such as public transit or climate legislation.
The disclosure labels could vary depending on the climate change impacts or concerns facing each individual jurisdiction. Coastal communities may prefer labels that directly pertain to sea level rise, whereas arid regions may find warnings related to drought to be more effective in altering consumer behavior. Either way, these labels are a low-cost, globally-scalable solution that both municipalities and community members can advocate for: municipalities can use licensing powers to require climate change labels on gas pumps; community members can voice their support to local representatives; and climate-focused policies in one region can inspire legislatures and citizens around the world.
Some local governments have gone ahead with climate change disclosure labels. In 2020, the Cambridge City Council passed an ordinance requiring the labels on all gas pumps in Massachusetts city, according to the Huffington Post. Sweden has a similar rule in place.
While many politicians support the idea, large fossil fuel companies have fought these labels nearly every step of the way. Vehemently opposed to disclosing the risks of fuel consumption, the industry instead preferred labels that specified gas-saving tips in Canada during Shirkey’s lobbying efforts.
You can learn more about Our Horizon and the campaign to place climate change labels on gas pumps here, or by listening to the long-form podcast below, which goes into further depth regarding this solution’s background and implementation challenges.
Ethan: Could warning labels help change our perception of fossil fuels? This is Ethan Elkind of Climate Break. Joining me is Rob Shirkey of Our Horizon, a non-profit calling for climate change disclosures to be placed on gas pumps across Canada.
Mr. Shirkey: Picture a sticker that’ll say something like: caution or warning, use of this fuel product contributes to climate change, or there could be one that says, contributes to air pollution which may cause: blank. And then you’ve got your series of say a half dozen labels, and one might speak to respiratory problems from local air pollution, another one might speak to extreme weather or a rise in sea level.
Ethan: While labels alone may not reduce emissions, they could make drivers more aware of the harms of fossil fuels. Shirkey says people often ignore the environmental impact of their driving — these stickers could help connect the dots between oil reservoirs, motor fuel and the greenhouse gasses causing climate change.
Mr. Shirkey: If you close that experiential gap between cause and effect, how might that affect who I’m interested in electing? How might that affect whether I’m likely to pick up my phone and call my local representative and voice support for some climate legislation?
Ethan: At a minimum, these stickers would make tangible our personal contributions to climate change, an acknowledgement that could go a long way in reducing emissions. To get involved in Our Horizon’s campaign for climate change disclosures, and for more climate solutions, visit climatebreak.org, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Ethan: Welcome to Climate Break, your source for stories on innovative climate solutions being developed at UC Berkeley and around the world, shared by the experts themselves. I’m your host, Ethan Elkind, from the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at Berkeley Law.
What if, whenever you filled your car with gas, you were reminded of the impact driving has on the environment, much like a warning on a cigarette pack or nutrition information on food? And what if this was true for other drivers, as well — if all gas fill-ups at all gas stations were marked by a grim warning of the future? How might this influence our perceptions of fossil fuels and climate change? Would it change public behavior?
These are questions Rob Shirkey has considered, and asked others to consider, over the past seven years. Shirkey is a lawyer from Toronto, Canada. Back in 2013, he launched Our Horizon, a non-profit advocating for climate change disclosure labels to be placed on gas pumps across the country.
Mr. Shirkey: Imagine if you go to a gas station and you’re pumping gas, picture maybe a three or four or five inch wide long sticker that that might be on the gas pump nozzle itself or on the pump panel that’ll say something like: “caution or warning: use of this fuel product contributes to climate change.” Or there could be one that says “contributes to air pollution, which may cause blank.” And then you’ve got your series of say a half dozen labels, and one might speak to respiratory problems from local air pollution, another one might speak to extreme weather…
Ethan: The message on each sticker could be tailored to customers, depending on where they live or what their local concerns might be.
Mr. Shirkey: Maybe if you live in a coastal community, something connected to a rise in sea level might be more compelling…I think if you can get a sense of what concerns are most relevant in your jurisdiction, then that’s what should show up on pumps.
Ethan: Shirkey’s concept, the first of its kind, is loosely modeled on health warnings you might find on tobacco products. Just as tobacco labels describe long-term effects of smoking, Shirkey’s disclosures would help drivers recognize the harms of filling up their vehicles with gas.
Mr. Shirkey: The idea, again, is just simply to connect us to this sometimes abstract, far away thing, you know, this invisible thing that we can’t see as we burn fossil fuels. To make it more tangible, make it more salient in our day to day, and change that kind of everyday innocuous consumer experience from one that it’s, it’s kind of a nonevent, it’s something that we all do and we’ve done for years, and introduce a little bit of discomfort with that or some frustration with that.
Ethan: Blame for fossil fuels often falls on the oil and gas companies responsible for extracting, refining and transporting them. But Shirkey emphasizes that regular consumers are complicit, too. After all, millions of drivers burn them for travel and commerce. And for many drivers, they may not connect environmental damage to the gas pumps that they hold in their hands. This disconnect became clear to Shirkey when he found himself stuck in traffic on a 14-lane highway.
Mr. Shirkey: I turned on the radio to the CBC, which is probably one of the biggest broadcasters in the country here, and it was a radio program where they were talking about the deep water horizon explosion. And the host, there were two guests, two or three guests I think, and every single caller, they were all saying the same thing, you know, shame on BP, shame on British Petroleum and so on. And it occurred to me as I was looking at thousands of cars in front of me, thousands of cars behind me. I kind of almost put on these imaginary x-ray goggles. And all I saw was people sitting on tanks full of fuel, full of gas that had to be extracted from somewhere under the earth. And it occurred to me that we needed some way to bring that cost a little closer to home.
Ethan: Shirkey believes his climate change disclosures will disrupt consumer complacency, forcing drivers to reckon with the reality of climate change, and also to wrestle with their own contributions to it.
Mr. Shirkey: I’m picturing people will read the label and just abandon their vehicles at the gas station and take public transit home. No, that’s not the idea. I see it happening in two ways. So one: potentially some individual behavioral change. So maybe there’s a particular consumer that interacts with this a few times and becomes a little more open to, you know what, the weather has been nice lately. I’ve been thinking of getting one of those stationary bikes at home, but why not ride my bike to work, and do my commute and get my physical exercise in one, right? Or maybe someone might be more open to taking public transit or maybe it’s someone, their lease is coming up and then they’re thinking, you know what? I’m going to get that electric vehicle.
Ethan: This approach of increasing consumer awareness is just the start for Shirkey, who says he’s after something bigger.
Mr. Shirkey: If you can close that experiential gap between cause and effect, if I could feel more connected to these problems, well, how, how might that affect who I’m interested in electing? How might that affect you know, whether I’m likely to pick up my phone and call my local representative and voice support for more funding, for public transit or some climate legislation. I think what’s more interesting is if you can take these hidden, far away costs, make them more visible, more tangible, how that then affects us collectively and how you’ll then see business and government respond to that.
Ethan: Since launching his campaign in 2013, Shirkey has notched a few small victories. But mostly, his advocacy has been met with considerable pushback from people who don’t want the climate change labels to be placed on gas pumps in the first place.
Mr. Shirkey: A lot of politicians liked the idea, but they were a little too afraid to actually implement it themselves. So I pivoted and the ask then became well, can you just pass a resolution in support of the idea and maybe ask provincial and federal governments to do it.
Ethan: He had some early success: North Vancouver in British Columbia agreed to the stickers.
Mr. Shirkey: They passed a bylaw saying you need to have climate warnings on gas pumps, but they left the look of those labels out of the actual bylaw. So that was to be designed over the coming months. And for about a period of a year, it was this back-and-forth design between a local government who is receiving input from me, basically a small effectively unfunded nonprofit, right…and who is receiving input from like a conglomerate of fossil fuel companies that are valued in the trillions collectively.
Ethan: So what might be one indication that Shirkey might be having an impact on our reliance on fossil fuels? Oil and gas groups have fought these labels almost every step of the way.
Mr. Shirkey: They kind of leaned on them pretty hard and said, we don’t want these labels that this guy’s asking, but we would be comfortable with labels that instead of disclosing the risks of fossil fuels, communicated gas saving tips. So if you go to a gas pump, say in North Vancouver now, it won’t say “use of these fuel products contributes to climate change, which may cause XYZ,” but it’ll say, “If you drive a little more slowly, you could save money on gas, or if you inflate your tires, you can save money on gas.” And I think at the very bottom right, there’s a small link to some sort of a climate change website.
Ethan: It’s safe to say this is not what Shirkey had in mind.
Mr. Shirkey: So they really caved to industry. And instead of having something that challenges the fossil fuels status quo, I think you have something that now further normalizes it because, Oh, all I have to do is inflate my tires, you know. Scientists around the world didn’t look at this problem and say, Oh, turns out we’ve been underinflating our tires. No, you know, they’ve said, well, it’s our combustion of fossil fuels that’s largely driving this problem.
Ethan: For Shirkey, these labels have come to represent more than just a way to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels. They also symbolize the ongoing ideological battle over the response to climate change, and the economic and energy transition it will require.
Mr. Shirkey: If you think about it, we’re facing what many have described as an existential threat, you know? Whatever the fallout of this will be, there’s a good argument that civilization as we know it might look different, right? So the situation’s pretty grave, and there’s a lot we need to do in terms of energy transition, in terms of even the food that we eat, you know, this sort of thing. And I think to myself, my God, I’m asking for a sticker. Like it’s one of these interventions that I think is paradoxical because I actually think it’s quite compelling. At the same time it’s incredibly low cost. It’s just a sticker. It’s super easy to do. And yet, we can’t do it.
Ethan: Still, Shirkey remains optimistic. He encourages others to join him in his advocacy by urging local governments to mandate these climate change disclosures — simple stickers that just might transform the conversation around climate change, before it’s too late. For more interviews with climate experts discussing groundbreaking research, you can visit our website at climatebreak.org. We’ve gathered additional information and resources there to help you remain up-to-date on the latest climate change solutions. I’m your host, Ethan Elkind. See you next time.show less