In one U.S. city, the routine action of filling up your car with gas may soon come with a warning.
In late January, Cambridge, Massachusetts, may have become the first city in the country to pass an ordinance that all gas station fuel pumps must bear a label telling consumers about the climate and health risks that come with burning diesel, ethanol and gasoline.
“I think there’s a certain pride in Cambridge to try to be a leader, to model policies that may seem somewhat radical and then become generally adopted,” said Jan Devereux, the former vice mayor who shepherded the bill until her retirement from the Cambridge City Council in late 2019.
Devereux’s victory in Cambridge was at least seven years in the making. It followed an unsuccessful effort to get climate labels on gas pumps in Berkeley, California; a limited measure in North Vancouver, British Columbia; and a soon-to-be-implemented law in Sweden.
Proponents hope that by highlighting the dangers of these fuels at the moment people buy them, the labels will gradually help shift social norms and create demand for more ambitious, far-reaching government action to address climate change.
But putting stickers on pumps has proved to be grueling work, showing just how challenging it still is to take even simple climate action.
The fuel label idea dates back a decade. It all began in a traffic jam.
It was 2010, and Robert Shirkey, a Canadian lawyer, was stuck on an eight-lane highway in Toronto listening to a call-in radio show about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which poured 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Looking at the cars around him, he suddenly realized they had all contributed to that disaster in some way with their unquestioned fuel consumption, and they didn’t even realize it.
Three years later, Shirkey officially launched a nonprofit called Our Horizon, in an ode to the disaster, to usher others toward the same kind of awakening. He called for warning labels on gas pumps to make the impact of filling up their tanks more tangible for consumers. He envisioned color photos of sick children ― similar to images just mandated for cigarette packets in the U.S. ― and damaged coral reefs accompanied by stark text about the climate and health effects connected to that fuel purchase.
Reminding people about the impact a product has on the environment at the moment they buy it changes their experience with that product, said Shirkey. And if consumers start to think differently, he hopes this will push them to question society’s reliance on these fuels more broadly and to advocate for further action to tackle the climate crisis.
It is an attempt at behavioral change, he explained, but “it’s more focused on creating a social environment that favors reform and hastening solutions from the government.”
Shirkey started lobbying for gas pump labels in his hometown of Toronto. But the timing was unfortunate: A political and media storm surrounding the unfolding drug scandal of the late mayor Rob Ford meant major changes to the city council, effectively preventing Shirkey’s idea from getting off the ground there.
So he took his show on the road, giving talks at universities and municipalities across Canada to teach people about the idea and convince them to talk to their local government officials about it.
My message to politicians is have the courage to do this and do it right. Robert Shirkey, founder of Our Horizon
While Shirkey generated a decent amount of interest, he said municipalities were hesitant to be the first to implement a measure like this ― especially because they felt that the fossil fuel industry would surely sue to stop their efforts.
In January 2015, West Vancouver, British Columbia, passed a resolution essentially giving the idea a thumbs-up without actually requiring the labels, Shirkey said. Several other cities in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario followed suit. But still no labels made their way to the pumps.
Then, in November of that year, North Vancouver enacted what Shirkey said was the first fuel warning label law in the world. But it felt like a hollow victory, he said. Industry stepped in and worked closely with the local government on the design of the labels. Rather than the dire warnings Shirkey had imagined, the labels simply highlighted efficient driving tips.
Around the same time Shirkey started Our Horizon, another activist named Jamie Brooks started pushing gas pump warnings in northern California. Brooks, currently a communications graduate student at San Francisco State University, heard about the idea at a Bay Area meeting hosted by the climate action group 350.org. “I like this idea of intervention that engages the consumer and the kind of foundational aspects of this demand for oil,” said Brooks, who also works as the campaign manager for Think Beyond the Pump, an offshoot of Our Horizon.
At first, Brooks got traction in the city of Berkeley, which considered the idea in 2014. That June, however, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association ― the United States’ oldest petroleum trade group, which counts Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron among its members ― sent a letter to the Berkeley City Council, saying the trade group believed the proposed fuel pump ordinance violated the First Amendment by “imposing onerous restrictions on businesses and forcing unwanted speech.”
During this same period, Berkeley passed an ordinance requiring radiation warning labels on cellphones. The cellphone industry quickly sued on First Amendment grounds and the case continues to wind its way through the courts. As a result, the fuel pump labels were tabled for fear they would be similarly challenged and shot down.
The First Amendment argument is one the fossil fuel industry has used repeatedly to oppose tighter regulations. Exxon Mobil used it in 2018 when faced with climate lawsuits brought by Oakland and San Francisco alleging the company had misled the public about climate change. Exxon argued that the cities were trying to restrict the company’s right to choose its own words.
Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, told HuffPost that she barely remembers the fuel pump label letter from five years ago, even though it bore her name and signature. She also emphasized that climate change has become an important issue for her organization and its member companies.
That doesn’t mean she is now supportive of gas pump labels. “I’m not opposed to discussing it, but I’m skeptical,” said Reheis-Boyd. “Is it the right place to put [a label] for a real conversation as complicated as climate change? I don’t know that I agree that it would be.”
But psychology and sustainability experts say the idea has merit.
There’s a temptation to compare fuel pump labels to Energy Star labels for appliances, nutrition labels on food, and health warning labels on cigarettes, said Angela Sanguinetti, a research psychologist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, who studies how the built environment impacts our behavior and well-being.
But while those labels are intended to influence your purchasing decision in the moment, it’s different with gasoline. You’re not going to not buy gas if your tank is almost empty just because you see this label, Sanguinetti said.
“It’s a great idea and it definitely should happen,” she said, but for the purpose of getting people to think more deeply about why they’re buying gas. It doesn’t start with the looming “E” on the dashboard gauge — it starts with owning a gas-powered car.
The labels could be a tool for education and indirect behavior change among consumers, as well as a way to potentially influence the fossil fuel industry to pursue cleaner fuel options so they remain competitive, said Sanguinetti.
The design of the labels would be crucial to how effectively they motivated change, she noted. Something simple and graphic that grabbed people’s attention, demonstrated the climate impact of the fuel they were using as compared to other options, and provided some kind of call to action could be quite effective, Sanguinetti suggested.
One example of this type of design comes from Sweden. Per Östborn and his nonprofit Swedish Association of Green Motorists started campaigning for climate labels on fuel pumps in 2013. It was a long process, but finally, in 2018, the Swedish Parliament unanimously passed the legislation to require these labels at all pumps across the country.
While Sweden’s energy agency is still finalizing the design, the basic concept is a color-coded climate intensity rating ― green being the least climate intensive and red being the most. The labels will appear with all fuels ― from diesel and gasoline to biodiesel pumps, as well as electric vehicle chargers ― and will feature a list of their raw materials, like crude oil or solar power, said Östborn.
The labels were set to be introduced in May, but priorities have shifted to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, meaning the implementation has currently been delayed until October, the advocate said.
Östborn is optimistic that the labels are already inspiring change within the fuel industry. As the date for mandatory labels approaches, he believes companies in the biodiesel industry are feeling the pressure to start voluntarily disclosing the percentage of palm oil in their fuel to the government. About a third of Sweden’s biofuels are made with palm oil, meaning there’s heightened attention on its contribution to climate change and deforestation.
“I can see a change in attitude among fuel companies themselves. They are more aware that they cannot try to sell this kind of fuel in the future,” said Östborn. “They have to choose carefully what they’re doing.”
Back in Cambridge, climate warning labels are just one part of a multifaceted initiative by the city to address climate change. Boosting electric vehicle infrastructure in tandem with the fuel pump labels is crucial, said Quinton Zondervan, a city council member who sponsored the fuel labels bill. While the labels signal the hazards of using fossil fuels, more climate-friendly alternatives are readily available in the city ― including electric vehicle charging stations and improved public transportation ― and becoming more so all the time.
Zondervan isn’t worried that industry will come in and suddenly sideline the city’s efforts. “Cambridge is a pretty quirky place,” he said, noting its progressive nature. Design of the Cambridge labels is still being finalized by the city manager and staff, said Zondervan, and will likely include basic messaging about how fossil fuels contribute to climate change.
Brooks, who continues to push for labeling in Berkeley, is watching the Cambridge experiment, expecting that any minute the fossil fuel industry could try to challenge the new ordinance. If the industry does sue and the city wins, that could set a precedent making it easier for other cities like Berkeley to move forward with their own laws, he said.
Despite the legislative victories in Cambridge and Sweden, neither Brooks nor Shirkey seems confident that their movement is gaining momentum. While they remain determined, they’re discouraged by how difficult it has been to persuade local politicians, even in fairly progressive places, to take decisive action.
“If we can’t even put a sticker on a pump, what hope do we have?” asked Shirkey. “My message to politicians is have the courage to do this and do it right. I think it’s a compelling thing, I think we need it. At the same time, it’s just a bloody sticker. For the love of God, do it.”
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