An interview with Rob Shirkey, lawyer and founder of the Canadian environmental non-profit Our Horizon. Rob is asking governments to pass legislation to require climate change risk disclosures or ‘warning labels’ on gas pumps.

Why climate warnings for gas pumps?

First, some context: A recent poll conducted by Leger shows that 47% of Canadians think “the science behind global warming is unclear.” The Guardian also recently reported that, based on current trends, we only have about a 5% chance of staying below the 2 degrees Celsius threshold set by the Paris Agreement.

There’s a huge gap between where we are and where we need to be. There’s also a huge gap between scientific community’s understanding of the problem and the public’s understanding of the science.

Governments and business don’t operate in a social vacuum. We need to feel more connected to the problem and we need to have a greater sense of urgency in addressing it. Distilling the message and putting right in the one unique place that fossil fuels literally flow through the palm our hands helps achieve that. The idea is a catalyst for change.

Can you describe the labels?

It’d be something like the labels on tobacco packages but I don’t think they need to be as graphic. We just need something to close the ‘experiential gap’ between cause and effect; something to build more feedback for course correction.

You can have a 3-inch by 3-inch sticker where the top half is an image of an impact of climate change or air pollution and the bottom half contains some corresponding text. It might read something like “NOTICE: Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change which may cause _______.” Just fill in the blank with the impacts you want to convey and there you have your series of labels.

Example of a potential warning label.

You can think of the labels as a simple disclosure of risk from a retailer to the end user of its product. When you stop and think about it, our use of fossil fuels is altering the basic chemistry of our planet, how can the product *not* come with a warning label?

How much would these labels cost?

I mean, how much does it cost to print a sticker? Let’s think of it as a return on investment. People can disagree on what the return might be in terms of shifts in attitude and behaviour but it’s relatively easy to determine the cost of the initiative. You can buy custom stickers online in bulk at a unit cost of about 25 to 35 cents a sticker.

I also found information from an industry association about how many gas stations there are in Canada. If you assume that each gas station has roughly eight to a dozen pumps and you multiply that out, you realize that we could put a sticker on every single gas pump in Canada for the same price of installing solar panels at a single residence. The idea ends up being one of the least costly climate interventions on the planet. And if you think of it in terms of ROI (return on investment), it might end up also being the most impactful.

What are you anticipating the impact to be?

Discourse on climate change in Canada tends to focus on points of extraction (e.g. oil sands and offshore drilling) or means of transportation (e.g. pipelines and shipping), but these areas of focus appear to be misplaced if our concern is greenhouse gas emissions. A well-to wheel lifecycle analysis reveals that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from end use; emissions from extraction and processing pale in comparison to emissions from vehicle combustion.

Unfortunately, we rarely question the simple act of pumping gas. There’s a complete disconnect – one that is perhaps compounded by the distancing effect of our upstream focus. 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 de-normalize it. By creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo energy solution, they stimulate demand for alternatives and shape a social environment that favours reform. They shake us out of our sense of complacency and provide impetus for us to do better.

While the labels will likely cause some individuals to reduce their emissions through carpooling or modal shifts, they will more importantly 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 idea is a catalyst for a community-wide conversation about how to transition to a more sustainable future.

Isn’t a carbon tax more effective?

I’m not convinced that’s the case. It’s a cynical, narrow, and, frankly, inaccurate view of humanity that posits that we respond to changes in price like automatons. There’s lots of research from behavioural economists that shows that pricing ‘externalities’ or hidden costs can sometimes backfire and actually result in a justification or continuation of behaviour. Case in point: polls show that a carbon tax increases public support for pipeline infrastructure instead of decreasing it!

The question is, how do we engage people’s sense of empathy or humanity to mitigate against the unintended consequences of pricing mechanisms? I think these disclosure labels are a step in that direction. What price signals seek to convey in a quantitative, dollars and cents sort of language, my idea conveys in a qualitative, image and text sort of language. In the abstract, each approach does the same (i.e. communicate externalities to market) but, on the ground, I think the labels engage an aspect of our humanity in a way that a 5-cent increase to the price of gas never will.

How has industry responded to your campaign?

They’ve co-opted it in attempt to neutralize it. At first, they ignored us by refusing to comment whenever there was a piece on us in media. They didn’t want to legitimize our efforts. Later they began to fight against us with bogus arguments like the idea is too expensive. But it’s a sticker! That one struck me as particularly absurd.

Eventually, as we continued to get more traction within government circles, they began to say that our intention was to “guilt Canadians” and suggested that a friendlier approach would be to provide tips to save money on gas instead of creating some discomfort with the underlying problem of our consumption of fossil fuels.

After a few years of advocacy, a community on the west coast finally passed our idea into law. Unfortunately, they left the design of the labels out of the by-law and delegated it to staff. Industry flexed their muscles and the final design ended up being a total greenwash. Our hope is that other governments will see through this co-option and have a bit of courage in pursuing a more impactful design.

What’s the biggest hurdle to implementation?

The biggest challenge is political. I think I was a bit naïve when I first started this. I figured: Hey, we’re up against this existential threat and the thing I’m advocating for is simple, low-cost, and potentially high-impact in terms of de-normalizing the fossil fuel status quo and shifting attitudes and behaviours. I’ll push it for a few months, set some precedents, and it’ll take on a life of its own independent of me having to advocate for it.

My biggest lesson has been that governments in Canada are too timid to try anything new. They’re risk averse but in the wrong way: Instead of worrying about an existential threat, they’re worried about a sticker.

There’s also a poor alignment with the way the intervention works and a politician’s self-interest: I’m suggesting we get a little uncomfortable with the status quo but a politician often prefers complacency. Who would want to implement something that would make their constituents feel uncomfortable? Unfortunately, complacency doesn’t drive reform; a bit of dissatisfaction with the status quo is a good thing.

At the end of the day, what Canada is lacking is leadership. I’m working on a book right now that shares all the research and thinking behind the idea and plan on taking it to more courageous, innovative parts of the world when it’s published in early 2018.

Learn more about this initiative here.