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Meet the Canadian Activist Putting Climate Change Warnings on Gas Pumps

He wants to give you a guilt trip every time you pull up to the pump.

All photos courtesy of Rob Shirkey

Soon, at every gas station in North Vancouver, Canada, there will be a warning labels on the pumps. The labels will feature photos of animals in danger of extinction, shots of the ocean floor damaged over time, and other grisly images of the real effects of climate change on the natural world.

The labels are the work of Our Horizon, a Canadian non-profit organization campaigning to put climate change warnings on gas pump nozzles throughout North America, and potentially overseas as well. The organization was founded by Rob Shirkey, a Toronto-based attorney-turned-environmental activist, who wants to make it harder for people to ignore the realities of climate change.

The idea may be catching on: Earlier this month, North Vancouver passed a law mandating pump nozzle warning labels at every gas station in the city, and other Canadian cities are now considering similar legislation. In the United States, city councils in Seattle, San Francisco, and Santa Monica have also discussed implementing the idea.

Of course, it's not going to happen without a fight.

"Retailers would be extremely concerned about any program that assesses penalties related to usage, especially for something that is essentially an advocacy message," said Jeff Lenard, a vice president at the National Association of Convenience Stores, when I asked him about the warning labels. "Fuel dispensers are already covered with important labels concerning safety, payment instructions, and appropriate product selection. Adding an additional label would further clutter dispensers and diminish the visibility of these other critical messages that the consumer needs to see."

In the US, at least, Our Horizon's campaign will almost certainly face legal pushback. When the Food and Drug Administration tried to place graphic images on cigarette packs in 2011, federal courts ruled that the action violated the First Amendment. While the FDA can regulate tobacco, per the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, the courts decided the more graphic warning labels went beyond that purview, and aimed to incite an emotional response from consumers, rather than simply give factual information about smoking. Warnings about something as controversial as climate change have less of a chance at passing muster for compelled speech in the US, especially given the continued skepticism of many on the political right.

Still, Shirkey plans to continue his lobbying efforts—especially in Canada, where changes are already underway. In an interview, he told me about Our Horizon's plan, and why he thinks it will work.

VICE: How did you come up with the idea for the warning labels?
Rob Shirkey: I was sitting on [Highway] 401 in Toronto, seven lanes going east and seven lanes going west. I was sitting there in rush hour burning fuel like we all were, barely moving, thousands of cars in either direction. I was listening to the radio. This was summer 2010, and everyone was talking about the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, which is the origin of our organization's name, Our Horizon. Every radio caller was saying, "Shame on BP," and I thought: The only reason they're there is simply [because] there's a market for the product. Here we all are using it. We're so disconnected to it. We don't even see it. If could have put on special X-ray goggles and could have looked under every person that was sitting there, I would have seen fuel that came from inside the earth.

I realized if we want to drive things upstream, I think it's first important to help establish some of these downstream connections to make us feel connected to the problem. The idea—call them disclosure labels, climate change warning labels, what have you—it stems from that understanding of here we all are, connected to this.

What do you mean by "upstream"?
It's a problem with pipelines. It's a problem with oilfields. Offshore shipping. Offshore drilling. That's where a lot of advocacy and media attention is focused. I think in upstreaming the problem, we further distance ourselves and perpetuate the status quo. If all of us on the demand-side of the equation are just engaging in this habitual automatic behavior [of filling up at gas stations] that's completely normalized. We're not saying "give me oil, give me oil, give me oil," but in effect, that's what's happening. And so if you have this situation of complete market complacency, it's very hard to drive change upstream.

On your website, you list a lot of support from academics and members of the scientific community. But what's the negative feedback been like?
We have gotten negative feedback, but for the most part it validates the concept. People sometimes write to me or post on social media that we don't need these labels. They say what we need is better public transit, what we need is high-speed rail infrastructure, more bike lanes, a carbon tax, we need the car industry to deliver more affordable electric vehicles. The thinking is that this idea disrupts this habitual automatic demand-side behavior in a way that challenges the status quo, makes us a little less comfortable, and stimulates broader demand for reform that will then create more action politically and incentivize businesses to meet that shift in demand.

The very fact that people already—just in response to the idea, never mind the fact that they're not on gas pumps yet—are taking the time to voice support for these things is evidence of the concept's effectiveness. So a lot of the arguments against it end up validating it.

And we do hear from climate deniers saying that this is just pushing propaganda and so on. That's fine. The objective here isn't to convince someone who is in denial. The objective is to nudge people who are already concerned about the idea, nudge them to this place where there is more social emphasis that then creates more space for reform. The deniers will then get dragged into the future, not by argument but more by a set of new norms. I think it will be effective even among the naysayers.

What about the people who just zone out at the pump? I work at a gas station in Pittsburgh, and people are either in a rush or too wrapped up in their own world to even read the "no cell phone" signs.
There will be a segment of the population that won't respond to it, but I tend to think the very attention around implementation will end up shining a light to that demand-side behavior. What I've noticed in communities that end up talking about it, it's already starting this downstream discussion. Even if there are some users who are zombies at the pump, I think a lot of the conversation around the issue will ensure that the idea has value.

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Do you expect fights over what the warning labels look like?
The designs that we've developed are more mock-ups. We're not married to the picture of the caribou. We're not saying it must be this before and after picture of ocean acidification. The thinking is: What does climate change look like in your community or in your state? And let that guide you for your decision making in what the label is. The designs will look different from community to community. It's an ongoing conversation. It might very well be that it isn't an image. Maybe a graphic, almost like a cartoon-like graphic.

Are you concentrating on North America, or are you reaching out to other continents now?
The tobacco labels exist in countries all over the world. The pictorial ones are in 77 countries; there are text-only ones in other countries. The thinking is there is a global audience that has been cognitively primed for this idea. They're not perfectly analogous, but if you think about it, if I smoke a cigarette today, I'm mostly fine. Down the road, there are some serious consequences, so governments have taken that consequence and mandated its disclosure on the product's package. Similarly, we burn fossil fuels today and we're mostly OK, but we're feeling some impacts. The really big impacts are down the road. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could take some of those far away consequences and put them on the thing that dispenses fossil fuel?

So there are some analogies, and people all over the world get it. We've heard from citizens in Brazil, New Zealand; we did an interview on German radio. I think there are people who are ready for this, and we're asking for volunteers to go to government websites around the world, copy and paste email addresses of elected officials into this massive database, and we are going to send them emails and say here's this idea, here's why we think it's compelling. By creating more examples globally, I think it helps our efforts here.

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