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Climate Change Warning Labels with Robert Shirkey

By Isabel Lyndon and Megan Bergeron

Extended Version

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.