Last week, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first in the nation to post bright yellow “warming” labels at gas pumps warning consumers of the latent climate and public health harms that result from gasoline combustion.
The labels are part of a nascent, global effort to generate public buy-in for the policy and behavioral changes we’ll all need to make if we want to keep the Earth from warming beyond the 1.5 celsius threshold. That means transitioning to electric vehicles, ramping up public transportation, and simply driving less.
It may cost under $30 to fill up your tank right now, but there are additional — and important — climate and public health costs that remain invisible, meaning the price of gas is actually much higher. In 2015, I (Drew Shindell) calculated in a widely cited paper that these “external costs,” which include the climate and air-quality damages resulting from combustion, add nearly $4 per gallon. In August, I testified to the House Oversight Committee with an updated methodology that estimates the true cost of gasoline is closer to an additional $6.50 per gallon. That cost is already an emergency.
The idea for warming labels began in Berkeley, California, six years ago when the group I (James Brooks) founded, Think Beyond the Pump, proposed the idea to the City Council. While the council approved the legislation in June 2014, the ordinance has stalled in court because it was tied to a warning label for cell phone radiation dangers — around which there’s much less scientific consensus.
Warming labels are intentionally disruptive. The goal is to create a social norm around gassing up and put public pressure on consumers to find ways to reduce emissions. Of course, there is some guilt involved; drivers get the message, and they know everyone else gets it, too. That forces drivers to recognize they’re part of the problem. It creates a sense of accountability.
That psychological shift is required before society will make the bigger behavioral and policy changes we need. Labels normalize the urgency, so the public supports emissions-cutting legislation like the transportation electrification bill currently under consideration in the Massachusetts state legislature. The other goal is to put the fossil fuel industry on notice. If the public is constantly reminded that combustion damages public health, Big Oil will be under more pressure to take more urgent action.
Why? Because we need to act faster. California’s ban on sales of new gas-powered vehicles, for instance, is an unprecedented and bold step, but it won’t phase out sales of new conventional cars and trucks until 2035. Most other states have not even taken such steps. And even when the political left puts a timeline on climate action, the target date usually accommodates the average life cycle of a gas-burning vehicle — 35 years too far into the future.
To stop the Earth’s warming, there are a multitude of carbon-reducing policies for transportation we could technically begin right now with our existing fleet, such as increased gas taxes, congestion pricing, tying vehicle-registration fees or taxes to emissions, reduced speed limits to optimize fuel economy (yes, we’ve done this before), and feebates —a system that imposes a fee on gas-sucking vehicles and a rebate on more efficient ones — to name a few.
Right now we don’t have the public buy-in needed for such a monumental shift to reduced consumption and more renewable energy. Consumers make hazy connections between their consumption of gas and its residual public health impacts. Alas, climate change mitigation remains a low policy priority for most Americans
Warming labels could help make the climate crisis less partisan and less avoidable as a product of biased media. They convey a government warning to general audiences — and not just the 26 percent already freaked out — about climate change. Which is why we need them in more places beyond blue bubbles like Cambridge. (Admittedly, we also need label designs that are more attention-grabbing than the anemic ones recently issued by the Cambridge Public Information Office.)
Government-sponsored warning labels have been powerful public education tools in the past. Remember that we used to be a smoke-anywhere-you-want society — in restaurants, in airports and on airplanes, and even in doctors’ offices. By the 1990s, in most states, you couldn’t smoke in any of those places. Warning labels on cigarette cartons preceded all these policies, appearing in 1965. Seat belts offer another parallel. Like smoking, not wearing seat belts used to be the norm. Then in the 1980s came the Click It or Ticket campaigns along with the now-famous crash-test dummies PSAs — you can learn a lot from a dummy! — which helped make seat belts non-negotiable.
Seat belts, good. Smoking, bad. Now we need a Gas-is-bad norm.
Of course, unlike smoking, we all need to transport ourselves and our stuff around, occasionally if not daily. But the invisible harms from combustion will keep on harming; they don’t particularly care about the complex and unjust ways in which we’ve organized life and transit. The labels simply point to the need to start taking some of the steps required for society to make admittedly tough, structural decisions about emissions-cutting in transportation.
A new gas-is-bad norm will help generate the necessary support lawmakers need to make public infrastructure investments like EV charging stations, bus rapid transit, and bike lanes, which will save money in the long run by circumventing future climate change and air pollution-related health problems.
Warming labels also balance the onslaught of fossil fuel industry public advertising. The oil industry alone spent $1.4 billion on advertising over the last decade in the United States. Just as the tobacco industry sowed doubt about the links between smoking and cancer, the fossil fuel industry continues to exploit public uncertainty about climate change with its messaging. The government regulated tobacco advertising, and it will similarly need to require that all fossil fuel advertising disclose climate and health risks.
Hopefully, Cambridge is the first city of many to adopt warming labels, and soon big yellow signs will be staring at us at gas-pumps throughout the country. But for now, we’re just glad they’re up at all — and after all these years! In the future, we hope they’ll say, in big bold letters:
“Burning gasoline and diesel is bad for your health and will make life on Earth increasingly difficult.”
* James Brooks is founder of the Hawaii-based organization Think Beyond the Pump. Drew Shindell is Nicholas Professor of Earth Science at Duke University and a coordinating lead author of the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5℃.
* Founded in 1999, Grist is a beacon in the smog — an independent, irreverent news outlet and network of innovators working toward a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck.
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