Campaign proposes new labels on fuel pumps

Environmental group Our Horizon is keen to put images of arctic ice floes melting, children starving, or species going extinct in front of consumers while they fuel up. The group is moving toward petitioning municipalities to demand new labels on fuel pumps.

Our Horizon’s thinking behind this is that it will help to narrow the distance between cause and effect in regard to climate change. The group hopes to place warning labels similar to those on cigarette packaging on fossil-fuel pumps. Robert Shirkey, a municipal lawyer and founder of Our Horizon, says, “What this label does is, through the use of image and text, it will bring that far-away consequence, be it the extinction of species, drought and famine, or ocean acidification, into the here and now so that we are better able to make decisions in the present.”

This project is partially based on the precedent set when Canada became the first country to implement pictorial tobacco product warning labels in the year 2 000. Shirkey says, “We now have independent studies from countries all over the world to verify that these warning labels on tobacco products do indeed help to change attitudes and behaviour.” It’s unknown what these studies are, but Shirkey says the labels produced by Our Horizon hope to achieve similar success in combatting what he thinks of as addiction to fossil-fuel products.

Despite sharing perceived negative effects, the reasons that people use tobacco versus fossil-fuel products differ; while tobacco is arguably an item of pleasure, driving and transportation are seen far more often as a necessity. However, before the effects of tobacco smoke were as studied as they are now, tobacco use was also very normalized in society and accepted as a necessity for many.

Our Horizon hopes that the proposed labels will achieve a reduction in use of gasoline through increasing sentiment of personal responsibility in regards to climate change. By relating the use of gas directly and visually to environmental damage that is allegedly caused by its use, Shirkey hopes that people will be presented with one more good reason to make more climate-friendly choices such as biking, walking, or taking public transit.  These labels could create a greater sense of responsibility and accountability in the users of fossil fuels—as Shirkey says, “What the warning label does on the gas pump nozzle is that it takes a problem of diffuse origins and it quite literally locates responsibility in the palm of your hand.”

Our Horizon hopes that these labels will make people mindful of the potential consequences of using oil products, and that the initiative may deter unnecessary use and develop a stronger market for the production of more eco-friendly transportation. “Globally, we are interested in causing this shift that will then bring about solutions that we are capable of achieving,” says Shirkey. “It’s just a matter of shifting investment over to those more sustainable means of transportation.”

A question that arises in the discussion of these proposed labels is how their use may make a difference when economically driven efforts such as the carbon tax have yet to significantly impact fossil fuel use. A general idea behind pricing mechanisms such as the carbon tax is that the economic costs associated with climate change, such as the building of infrastructure to adapt to it, should be accounted into the products that contribute to its occurrence. Shirkey says, “What our labels do is they complement the quantitative approach of pricing mechanisms and capture and communicate those external costs in a qualitative way, via the use of image and text.”

Shirkey hopes that the labels will be part of a catalyst for change. “If we can all be made, quite literally on a weekly basis, to face the reality of what we’re up against and made to feel a part of it, I think we will then be more interested in politicians who are offering meaningful solutions to climate change,” he says.

Shirkey says the pump-label proposal was taken to municipal vote for the first time April 25, 2013, in the North Saanich municipality and failed with three votes yes and four votes no. Our Horizons now plans to take a step back from campaigning to focus on encouraging Canadian youth to take action, says Shirkey, and create a stronger national movement in hopes that, with increased enthusiasm, a future vote may pass.
Adriane Pollard, the Environmental Services Manager for the District of Saanich, responded to an email request for comment, writing, “We normally do not get involved with (or have the legal ability) initiatives that could be seen as favouring or disfavouring products.” Shell Canada did not respond in time for print, nor did City of Victoria councillors.

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