Shifting Public Opinion with Warning Labels on Gas Pumps, with Rob Shirkey

A gas station pump with multiple signs in English and French.

Warning labels might be attached to the gas pump handle or the gas pump housing, like the many labels shown here, on a Canadian gas pump. Image credit: Sikander Iqbal, via Wikimedia Commons.

Script by: Jericho Rajninger Audio by: Wangyuxuan Xu Blurb by: Elizabeth Sherstinsky

What are Climate Change Disclosure Labels?

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. 

Labels for Increasing Public Awareness

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 to 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. 

Applying the Labels

Some local governments have gone ahead with climate change disclosure labels. In 2020, the Cambridge City Council began requiring the labels on all gas pumps in the Massachusetts city, according to WHDH, a Boston area news station. 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. 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.

About the guest

Rob Shirkey is a recognized authority on the subject of climate change risk disclosures for gas pumps, which are being implemented in some North American communities. He is a lawyer from Toronto, Canada, and has given lectures across North America, been featured in media all over the world, and received many awards for his work on climate change. You can learn more about Our Horizon and the campaign to place climate change labels on gas pumps here.

Further Reading

Brooks & Ebi, Climate Change Warning Labels on Gas Pumps: The Role of Public Opinion Formation in Climate Change Mitigation Policies, Global Challenges (2021).

Where Are All the Climate Warning Labels on Gas Pumps?, Bloomberg (2022).


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind and you’re listening to Climate Break: climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal? Using climate change warning labels on gas pumps to nudge consumers away from fossil fuel. Joining me is Rob Shirkey of Our Horizon, a nonprofit pushing to implement these labels in Canada.

Rob 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 won’t reduce emissions, they could help drivers connect the dots between the vehicles they drive and the fossil fuels they burn. It’s an interruption of the status quo that Shirkey is after.

Rob Shirkey: I think that the value of this sticker is frankly that it changes that consumer experience, it frustrates it a little…and that’s what will ultimately drive change upstream.   That’s when you’ll see governments respond, that’s when you’ll see businesses respond. And for 20 cents a sticker, give it a shot.

Ethan: As it stands in the United States, only three in ten people want the country to phase out fossil fuels entirely. Warning labels could help shift public opinion.

Rob Shirkey: If you can close that experiential gap between cause and effect: If I could feel more connected to those problems, 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: To learn more about climate warning labels and how to implement them at your local gas stations, visit climatebreak.org.

Shifting Public Opinion with Warning Labels on Gas Pumps, with Rob Shirkey