Warning: may cause climate change
This guest post is from Robert Shirkey, lawyer and executive director of Our Horizon, a not-for-profit climate change organization based in Toronto, Canada. He describes how Our Horizon’s campaign for warning labels on gas/petrol pump nozzles is drawing on climate change communication research.
Climate change warning labels on gas pump nozzles.
Our Horizon has a simple, low-cost idea that we believe will play an important role in addressing climate change. We want to put warning labels on gas pump nozzles just like we do with cigarette packages. The idea helps us to connect the dots between our use of fossil fuels and the effects of climate change. Honestly facing our problem is a first and necessary step for taking meaningful action.
In 2001, Canada became the first jurisdiction in the world to require pictorial warning labels on cigarette packages. Since then, approximately 50 countries have adopted our innovation. Studies show that these labels are effective at providing information and changing attitudes and behaviours.
Many gas stations come equipped with “nozzle talkers.” A nozzle talker is like a rubber sock that fits over standard gas nozzles and is equipped with a flat surface to display advertising. The medium is an ideal place to communicate the link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change.
Creating feedback and locating responsibility
Climate change is a problem of no feedback. There is a delay between cause and effect. We get little feedback from our actions today so there is no signal to change our behaviour.
The labels create feedback. The image and the text on the warning label bring far away consequences – like famine, extinction of species and extreme weather – into the here and now. They build feedback to provide an important signal to change our behaviour.
Climate change is also a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contributions to the problem are small, but collectively, our actions are altering the chemistry of our planet. Psychologists know that when responsibility for something is diffuse, we fail to act.
The labels locate responsibility. The placement of the image on the nozzle takes a problem of diffuse origins and locates responsibility right in the palm of your hand.
Communicating externalities in a qualitative way
Climate change is a problem of externalities. Certain externalities can be reasonably captured through pricing mechanisms. For example, our use of fossil fuels is causing rising sea levels and the need to upgrade our existing coastal infrastructure. The cost of these upgrades can be estimated and then internalized into the price of the product. This way, we come to know the “true cost” of the product and we adapt our purchasing decisions accordingly.
But what is the cost of a species that faces extinction? And, to the extent that drought will cause famine and death, we also need to ask: what is the dollar value of a human life? These are all important externalities that need to be communicated to the market in order for it to function as it is intended but how can we capture these particular values via pricing mechanisms?
Our solution addresses this too. The labels capture and communicate costs to the market in a qualitative way – through the use of image and text. These labels have the potential to engage our sense of humanity in a way that a 10-cent price increase at the pump never will.
The labels will cause some individuals to change their behaviour but, more importantly, they will result in a shift in our collective demand that will allow for meaningful action on climate change. It’s what will give an auto-maker a market for their ultra efficient vehicle or their electric car. It’s what will give an elected official the political capital to fund public transit in a big way or implement a carbon tax.
How we’re getting this done.
Municipalities in Canada can use their licensing powers to require gasoline retailers to place these labels on their gas pumps. With over 4,000 municipalities in Canada, we expect a number of communities to pass the by-law soon.
We also see the idea quickly spreading from here. Citizens in countries that have warning labels on their tobacco packaging are cognitively primed to adopt our concept. We anticipate the idea will go global and play an important role in prompting us all to rise to meet the greatest challenge of our time.
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