Our Horizon, a Toronto-based environmental group led by Rob Shirkey, is campaigning throughout Canada and the U.S. to enact laws requiring warning labels on gas pumps which inform consumers about the environmental consequences of using gasoline. The campaign is gaining traction. Berkeley and San Francisco governments have given preliminary approval to the idea and are in the process of drafting the warning label regulations. The City of West Vancouver recently passed a resolution favoring the warning labels.
In a stirring TEDx talk and on the ourhorizon.org website, Shirkey argues that the labels confront the consumer with the severe yet distant impacts of climate change, thereby counteracting the total lack of feedback between the use of carbon and its consequences. He also says that the warning labels “take a problem [climate change] of diffuse origins and locate responsibility right in the palm of your hand.”
Shirkey argues strongly for the gasoline consumer’s central role in combating climate change:
“We may worry about climate change, oil sands, pipelines, etc., but we rarely question the simple act of pumping gas. There is a complete disconnect. The act of going to a gas station and filling up a car has been normalized for several generations. The warning labels take this unexamined, automatic act and problematize it. In creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing mobility solution, they stimulate demand for alternatives. The labels disrupt the status quo, shake us out of our sense of complacency, and provide impetus for us to do better. They are a catalyst for change.
Discourse around climate change in Canada tends to overlook end-use in favour of focusing on oil companies, points of extraction (e.g. oil sands, offshore drilling) or means of transportation (e.g. pipelines, shipping). Unfortunately, the uncomfortable reality is that we all share in responsibility for this problem. Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gases come from end-use; emissions from extraction and processing pale in comparison to emissions from vehicle combustion.
[W]hile a diversity of approaches is important, there is a risk that in framing the [CO2 pollution] issue as an exclusively upstream problem, we actually distance ourselves from it and perhaps unintentionally perpetuate the status quo through demand-side complacency. A complacent, disconnected marketplace is unlikely to affect change upstream; engaging consumer demand can help us to finally address these issues in a more meaningful way.” (p.17)
The labeling campaign has attracted vigorous opposition. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil-industry lobbying group, said the plan imposes “onerous restrictions” on businesses and “compels speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” A Berkeley councilmember said that the labeling ordinance is a “feel-good measure” that would “increase people’s guilt without giving them useful action.”
As electric cars and other transportation solutions become increasingly viable, consumer perceptions of gasoline will play a key role in determining the longevity of gasoline as the world’s dominant transportation fuel. By graphically and repetitively reminding gasoline consumers of the environmental damage that gasoline use causes, gas pump warning labels can help shift consumer demand to other fuels and technologies and speed up gasoline’s demise.