Climate Change Warning Labels on Gas Pump Nozzles by Our Horizon
We are lobbying cities to pass laws that would require climate change warning labels on gas pump nozzles. The idea is a catalyst for change.
We are lobbying cities and towns to pass laws that would require gasoline retailers to place climate change and air pollution warning labels on their gas pump nozzles as a condition of maintaining their business license. Please watch our 3-minute intro video to our campaign.
Our campaign was launched by Toronto-based lawyer Rob Shirkey in early 2013. Please watch his recent TEDx talk that explains some of the psychology and economic theory behind our proposal. The video also shares some of his personal motivations for launching the campaign. You can also watch a lecture that he gave at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo in May, 2014.
And please watch this news clip from Global TV News that covers our campaign and the traction it's getting on Canada's west coast.
Category of the action
Changing public perceptions on climate change
What actions do you propose?
The law would require gasoline retailers to place 3-inch by 3-inch climate change and air quality warning labels on gas pump nozzles as a condition of obtaining, continuing to hold, or renewing a business licence. Many gas pumps already come equipped with “nozzle talkers” that can be used for this purpose.
Succesful experience with tobacco warning labels:
In 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to require pictorial warning labels on tobacco packages. Our innovation has since spread all over the world. Now more than 60 countries have pictorial warning labels on their tobacco packages. In 2009, the European Union commissioned a meta-study that reviewed the scientific literature on the effectiveness of tobacco warning labels. The report included over 200 studies and is the most comprehensive analysis on the subject. The report concludes:
"There is clear evidence that tobacco package health warnings increase consumers’ knowledge about the health consequences of tobacco use and contribute to changing consumers’ attitudes towards tobacco use as well as changing consumers’ behaviour. They are also a critical element of an effective tobacco control policy."
Tobacco companies have effectively acknowledged the impact of these labels by fighting labelling laws all over the world. More generally, there is an entire industry that employs psychologists and runs focus groups to tinker with the images, text, colours, fonts, shapes and textures of packaging – all with the explicit purpose of influencing consumer choices. Clearly, the way a product is presented impacts consumer attitudes and behaviours.
While there is certainly an analogy to be made with tobacco warning labels, our labels are even more compelling when considered in the context of climate change.
The labels create feedback:
Climate change can be understood as a problem of no feedback. There is a delay between cause and effect: we burn fossil fuels today but do not get feedback from our actions to signal a need to change our behaviour. This lack of feedback is compounded by what psychologists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’ or the ‘current moment bias.’ This is our tendency to prefer interests that are small and proximate in time relative to interests that are significant but experienced in the future.
Our warning labels compress time to counteract the effects of the current moment bias. They bring faraway consequences – property damage, extreme weather, and drought – into the here and now. In doing so, they introduce critically important feedback to help us respond to climate change and air pollution in a more adaptive way.
The labels locate responsibility:
Climate change can also be understood as a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contribution to the problem is small; collectively, our actions dangerously alter the chemistry of our planet. Social psychologists know that when responsibility for something is shared among many, we often fail to act. The antidote is intuitive: “the key” to addressing problems of diffusion of responsibility is “getting others to feel personally responsible for helping to solve problems they may not consider their own.”
So where responsibility for a problem is diffuse, one must simply locate responsibility. The placement of the warning label on a gas pump nozzle takes a problem of diffuse origins and locates responsibility right in the palm of your hand. Our idea is not another documentary or vague awareness campaign; there is absolutely nothing like it that connects us to the problems of climate change and air pollution in such a direct way. While our concept may be simple, it truly is revolutionary.
The labels communicate externalities in a qualitative way:
Climate change is also a problem of negative externalities. Externalities are costs or benefits that result from the use of a product but are not reflected in its price. In the context of fossil fuels, we often hear negative externalities expressed as “hidden costs”. Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade regimes seek to internalize these harms to convey the “true cost” of fossil fuels to the market.
While we are able to determine the costs of the concrete and rebar required to adapt our infrastructure to the impacts of climate change and reflect these costs in the price of fossil fuels, how do we capture externalities like the loss of a species or human suffering? While economists have actually developed models for pricing human life, we recognize that price is a deficient language for communicating these values to the marketplace. Our warning labels are simply a qualitative way of capturing and communicating externalities to the marketplace: what price seeks to convey in quantitative terms (using dollars and cents), our idea communicates in qualitative terms (using image and text). In the abstract, they both achieve the same thing. On the ground, our idea nurtures a focus that engages our sense of humanity in a way that a price signal never could.
Behavioural economists observe that pricing externalities can switch off moral cues that otherwise regulate human behaviour. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations has called climate change the “moral challenge of our generation.” If climate change truly is a moral challenge, why not treat it as such? Our warning labels convey important moral information to the marketplace to help transform communities. It is a market signal that can take us from complaining about the price of gas to demanding that governments and businesses do more to address climate change and air pollution.
A disruptive tool to broaden engagement and catalyze action.
We may worry about climate change, oilsands, 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 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. Research on the "spillover effect" suggests that the impacts of our labels may extend beyond the transportation sector. The idea is a catalyst for change.
Environmental groups tend to overlook end-use in favour of campaigning against oil companies, points of extraction (e.g. oilsands, fracking, offshore drilling) or means of transportation (e.g. pipelines, shipping). The choice appears to be shaped by a strategy to create an “enemy narrative”; 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. A complacent, disconnected marketplace will never affect change upstream. Engaging consumer demand can finally enable us to address these issues in a meaningful way.
The warning labels are pro-market and non-prescriptive; they simply provide relevant information to the marketplace and rely on the market to respond. The labels will cause some individuals to reduce their emissions but, more importantly, they will result in a shift in our collective demand to facilitate meaningful action on climate change and air pollution. Politicians will have more support to pass climate legislation, invest in public transit, build bike lanes and develop complete communities. Businesses will also innovate to meet the needs of a shifting market. The labels can be thought of as a prerequisite for action on climate change and air pollution. After all, if we can't even honestly acknowledge our problem, what hope do we have in actually addressing it?
Please visit our website for radio interviews, video, news articles and citations for the information above... or watch our TEDx talk by clicking the image below!
Who will take these actions?
Citizens in communities all around the world can take these actions. Our proposal is an easy, out-of-the-box campaign for people to run in their own communities. Environmental organizations are welcome to adopt our campaign and make it one of their own.
We recently released a comprehensive, 40-page legal report on our idea that is available for download at our website. People are free to take our content and adapt it to their own community. All we ask is that people provide credit to Our Horizon and a reference our website atwww.ourhorizon.orgwhen using our research.
We also have a webpage with brief, step-by-step instructions on how to get his law passed in your own community and we've developed an Advocacy Action Kit for people to download to start their own local campaign.
Where will these actions be taken?
We are focused on executing the campaign in communities in Canada. People can take actions in cities and towns all over the world.
We have selected a handful of progressive, environmentally-minded communities in which to target our efforts. When these communities have passed our idea into law, we will build on these positive precedents by moving the idea in other cities.
We are currently lobbying city councillors and doing community outreach to invite citizens to do "deputations" (i.e. short speeches) to their local representatives when they are debating the by-law. We have done a lot of outreach to youth in particular. We will be recording deputations by youth and posting them to YouTube so that their example can inspire other youth to advance the idea in their own community. We anticipate seeing some compelling speeches from people as young as 13-years-old and believe some of these will "go viral" to reach a broad audience.
With the warning labels on tobacco packaging already all over the world, citizens in numerous countries have been cognitively primed for our concept. In fact, we have already received communications from all over the world from people who want to run this campain in their own countries.
Please see our step-by-step plan for executing this campaign in your own community.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
For some individuals, the labels could be that nudge they need to get them to take public transit, carpool, ride their bike in the summer, or do better trip planning. While these reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are important, we are more interested in how the idea can catalyze a shift in attitudes to create favourable conditions for a variety of reforms. Think of our idea as "priming the pump" (pun intended!) for all sorts of meaningful action on climate change.
Please watch our TEDx talk to learn how the labels draw on psychology and economic theory to make us feel more connected to these problems and catalyze change.
What are other key benefits?
Canadian communications icon Marshall McLuhan famously wrote:
"The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."
Traditional communication vehicles such as film, books, etc. all have the problem as "out there" and are consumed passively. They also tend to be exposed to an audience that already accepts the message and in a sense "preach to the choir."
With our idea, the medium - the gas pump nozzle - is the message. It says that we all share in responsibility for climate change and, as a corollary, we all have the power to address it. The concept actively engages the user to create a sense of agency. It doesn't show climate change as on a screen or in a book; it distills IPCC research to shows the impacts of climate change right in the palm of your hand. The idea also reaches out to a much broader audience (i.e. everyone that pumps gas). It is a simple yet powerful catalyst for transformation.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The costs to our proposal are negligible.
The law would require gasoline retailers to place 3-inch by 3-inch climate change and air pollution warning labels on gas pump nozzles. Many gas pumps already come equipped with “nozzle talkers” that can be used for this purpose. A “nozzle talker” is a sort of rubber sock that fits over standard gas nozzles and is equipped with a flat display area for advertising to face the consumer. Nozzle talkers retail for approximately $15. A sticker that fits on the display area can be printed at nominal cost. The cost of implementing our proposal is small and can easily be covered by a gasoline retailer.
The negligible cost of our proposal is made particularly evident when considered against the billions of dollars in adaptation costs that must now be covered by taxpayers. Indeed, our idea is quite possibly one of the least expensive climate interventions in the world. In light of this, it would be fiscally imprudent for local politicians not to pursue the warning labels.
We launched our campaign in early 2013 and finished a cross-Canada tour in the fall of last year. The idea was to take our concept to cities and towns across the country so that citizens could begin local campaigns. We anticipate pushing for votes in a few strategically-selected cities this spring and summer. We will take these positive precedents to push for votes in other communities. We want to provide examples for the world to follow.
People who are interested in supporting our campaign can visit our funders page to learn more. We are currrently seeking funding to support our work.
Our organization is also working on a globally-unprecedented, demand-side approach to energy reduction in buildings (that doesn't involve stickers!). We are currently looking for partners to help us launch this unique project.
>> Watch our Intro Video for our campaign.
>> Watch our TEDx talk.
>> Read Rob Shirkey's writings at the Huffington Post.
>> Book Rob as a speaker for your event.
Visit our website at www.ourhorizon.org to download our 40-page legal report for citations and learn more about our project.