INDUSTRIES: PETROLEUM :
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ENVIRONMENT: GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE:
Could Climate Change Warnings on Gasoline Pumps Actually Work?
Could Climate Change Warnings on Gasoline Pumps Actually Work?
Updated on March 19, 2016, 9:00 a.m. ET
by Heather Smith
Later this year, someone stopping to fuel up in North Vancouver will be the first customer to see the controversial warning labels. Theyll be wrapped around the gas pump handles. The exact wording isnt settled yet, but heres the gist of it: Every time you pump gas, youre contributing to air pollution and climate change.
This label was developed by Robert Shirkey, a Toronto-based lawyer who has been obsessed with climate change for, as he put it, “as long as I can remember.” A few years ago his grandfather told him to “do what you love,” then promptly died and left him with a small inheritance. Shirkey used the money to found Our Horizon, a nonprofit that functions as a one-stop shop for anyone curious about getting their local municipality to put climate change warning labels on gasoline pumps.
It might seem unfair to post labels at gas stations implying that individual drivers are guilty of nudging caribou closer to extinction. After all, lots of others are out there warming the troposphere: power plants, trucking, the military, you name it. Shirkey decided to focus on gas pump warning labels precisely because the responsibility for climate change is so diffuse. Unless youre living some kind of Little House on the Prairie lifestyle, the energy that goes into heating your home and keeping you fed is invisible.
But the experience of fueling up is a real, gassy, in-your-face moment of personal responsibility. You can smell it. You have to pull levers to make it work. “There is nothing else,” Shirkey wrote, in an article for the amazingly named Municipal World magazine, “that currently connects us to the problems of climate change in such a direct way.”
The push to label gasoline pumps is also a reminder of just how much the movement to educate people about climate change has come to parallel the one to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. Tobacco campaigns started with a scientific argument (Doctors say smoking is bad for you) before broadening into more advertising-inspired messages.
When New Yorks attorney general decided to investigate whether Exxon lied to the public or its investors about the risks of climate change, it recalled the decades of lawsuits brought against the four largest tobacco companies by the attorneys general of 46 states. When those cases were settled in 1996, tobacco companies had to pay the states money that went directly into funding anti-smoking advertising campaigns particularly ones designed to stop teenagers from smoking in the first place.
Suing energy companies is going to be even harder than suing tobacco companies. That doesnt make it any less entertaining to imagine what would happen if state attorneys general sued and won. There would be cheesy public service billboards in high schools about how uncool driving is compared with taking the bus.
America used to be the world leader of warning labels. In 1966, it became the first country to force cigarette companies to print a warning from the surgeon general on every pack of smokes. They ran the gamut from, “WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive,” to, “WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.”
In 1966, 43 percent of Americans smoked. Fifty years later, that percentage has fallen to 18. Labels cant claim all the credit, but the research is clear: Warning labels work. Research also shows that warning labels are especially effective when theyre very large and combine pictures with words, especially if those pictures are disgusting. That explains why its hard to buy a cigarette in many other countries without seeing a revolting picture of advanced mouth cancer. Beginning in 2012, cigarette packs sold in the United States were supposed to carry those picture warnings, too, but their rollout was blocked by a lawsuit from several cigarette companies.
The threat of lawsuits is part of the reason why gasoline warning labels have been slow to catch on.
It made me think of something I had learned a long time ago. People dont actually like pumping gas. Gas companies know this and have designed their pumps to look like ATMs on the grounds that people like getting money from ATMs more than they like paying for gas. People dont like schlepping kids everywhere in cars either, any more than the kids like to be schlepped. In my experience as an actual child who spent long hours in the backseat of a Ford Taurus, a realistic photo would involve a lot more sulking.
So, in the same way that beer distributors drop off sexy bikini lady posters to make sure that everyone at the bar remembers how much fun beer is, energy companies feel compelled to push the joys of gasoline at gas pumps and on billboards around the world. Its clear why they would push back against a warning label with everything theyve got. The cognitive dissonance of a picture of happy kids hanging from the fuel line and a picture of a kid with an inhaler glued to the gas pump would be a bit much in the same way that a baby congratulating mom and dad for their taste in cigarettes is impossible once you have a label right there on the cigarette pack telling you that smoke destroys their tiny lungs.
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