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The Lawyer Who Wants to Put Climate Change Warnings on Gas Pumps

Rob Shirkey thinks that gas pumps should tell drivers that they're harming the planet in the same way that cigarette packs tell smokers they're giving themselves cancer.

Screenshot via YouTube.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Rob Shirkey jokes that he wants billionaires to call him, but he's serious. The Toronto lawyer is mortgaging his house to help fuel a personal mission to convince cities across North America to slap climate change warning stickers on gas pumps.

The stickers—which mimic the black-and-red warnings on cigarette packages and draw links between fuel consumption and catastrophes like famine and species extinction—face numerous legal, political, social, and financial barriers before they could be implemented, and it's not clear yet whether they would actually work.


None of that fazes Shirkey, however, who left his legal job as a city solicitor three years ago to lobby municipalities on the warning stickers.

"A lot of activists will vilify industry and say it's a problem with the oil sands, it's a problem with pipelines," Shirkey told VICE. "My thinking is, though, that the only reason any of that exists is because I use the product [and] there's a market for it. So if you actually want to address this issue, you have to address the demand side of the equation."

His idea is on the cusp of adoption.

The cities of West Vancouver and Moncton have supported pursuing the idea, while Guelph plans to bring the proposal before city council next week.

A resolution "that all vendors of retail petroleum products in Canada be legislated to provide warning labels on all pump handles (pump talkers) and/or pump panels, and that those companies who do not have this feature on their pump handle be obligated to fit them with the plastic sleeves which will allow warning labels to be displayed" is going to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) for consideration in June 2016. If the federation agrees, it would give municipalities the backing they need to pass bylaws to compel gas retailers to use the warning stickers.

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It is also starting to take root in California, where San Francisco and Berkeley are working toward adopting the labels after pushed for a similar warning system.


Guelph councillor Bob Bell was impressed when he first encountered Shirkey touting his idea at a marketplace fair booth. To Bell, the stickers are a cost-effective way to remind consumers that their actions have an effect on climate change.

"I think it will work—the question is to what degree," he told VICE this week.

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In the next year or two, Bell hopes Guelph will pass a bylaw to mandate the warning labels at all gas stations, but in the meantime he's asking gas retailers to voluntarily adopt them. One retailer in Guelph, Norm's Esso, immediately jumped on board, telling Bell he was concerned about climate change—though he too questioned the effect the labels would have. The owner of Norm's Esso, Brian Flewelling, was unavailable to comment.

Jeff McDonald, a spokesperson for the mayor of West Vancouver, said the city has no immediate plans to mandate climate change caution stickers, but they are looking for direction from the FCM.

But if cities start passing local bylaws, they'll likely face legal challenges from retailers, according to the Canadian Convenience Store Association (CCSA).

CCSA president Alex Scholten argued that mandating the labels would hurt small business owners who are already over-regulated. "To have something like this just added on is death by a thousand pinpricks," he told VICE.

"If a gas retailer feels strongly about the need to make consumers more aware of the issue, then I think it's a great thing," he said. "But in terms of mandating all retailers to do that, at their cost, at their expense, at their time, I don't think is the right way to go here."


He considers the upfront cost as being more of a concern to gas retailers than any potential decrease in gas sales, but Shirkey said the stickers would cost a meagre 25 to 50 cents to print. The rubber sock that goes over nozzles (and which many already have for advertising) retails for $15, Shirkey estimated.

Scholten also questioned whether the perceived effect of warning labels on cigarette packaging is overblown, since governments have adopted other anti-smoking regulations that could have contributed to the decline of smoking. However, at least one study says graphic warning labels dropped smoking levels in Canada by 12 to 20 percent from 2000 to 2009.

"[Climate change stickers are] probably overkill and will get lost with all the white noise that's out there on the issue to start with," Scholten argued.

Shirkey pointed to a 2009 study commissioned by the European Union, which stated that "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' behavior. They are also a critical element of an effective tobacco control policy."

As an environmentalist who started his own climate action group, Dan Dolderman wants Shirkey's idea to work. But as a social psychologist at the University of Toronto, he's not convinced it will have much of an impact.


While they could act as a behavioral prompt—kind of like "turn off the lights" stickers by light switches—and they could potentially change drivers' perceptions, Dolderman believes that, over time, the effect would wear off as people get used to seeing the labels.

And the climate change stickers will likely be less effective than cigarette warning labels, he argued. "Cigarette warning labels are about you: if you smoke, you will die," he said. "Whereas climate change warning labels are about, if you drive, this will happen. It's much less personal, it's much more diffuse, it's much more abstract," he said, adding: "If you personally don't drive, it does very little to the overall global warming [and] climate change that we're facing."

If Shirkey wants an effective message, the psychologist advises, he should tell people how they can make a larger dent in the issue of climate change—by becoming politically active, for example. We need governments to act on climate change, he said.

Until then, Shirkey will focus on changing one city at a time; he hopes to tour the US and Europe ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris this December.

It's a labor of love, he said, that began with a $7,500 check left to him by his grandfather and has caused him to collapse from exhaustion on two separate occasions.

"For anyone who reads this article, my hope is, like, hey, if you like it, advocate for me in your own community. I can't do this alone, right?" he said. "If you run an environmental organization, work with me, let's work on this together."

"Or, if you're a billionaire," he half-jokes, "give me money."

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