Warning!
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas (Getty Images)

Climate scientists have been warning about the dangers of using oil and gas for decades. Now, one U.S. city is slapping those warnings where they’ll be seen all the time.

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Cambridge, Massachusetts is placing cigarette-style cautionary labels onto gas station pumps, per an ordinance the city passed in January. Officials hope the move will help consumers better understand the risks associated with the continued use of fossil-based fuels like diesel and gasoline.

The city’s Climate Action Plan includes a goal of reaching citywide carbon neutrality by 2050 by lowering emissions by 80% and offsetting the remainder. This one small piece which could help ensure it gets there.

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“The fight to reverse climate change requires that everyone take action to change their behavior, and the City must underscore the fact that each individual’s behavior can make an impact on the environment and on public health,” the ordinance says.

The ordinance is the first to successfully mandate the use of these warning labels in the country. It follows a similar unsuccessful effort in Berkeley, California, and a successful nationwide one in Sweden, which went into effect this past May.

Numerous studies show that when cigarette boxes prominently feature warnings on the harm that smoking causes, smokers tend to think twice about their choices. In March, public health experts issued a call for governments to apply the same logic to gas pumps.

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Image: City of North Vancouver

It’s unclear what exactly the labels in Cambridge will look like. The ordinance merely requires that they include “information about the impact of fossil fuel consumption,” but research suggests that in the case of cigarette boxes, it’s the gruesome photos of severe gum disease and cancers that discourage use, rather than the mild text we see on American packages.

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The lack of specifications for the warnings could also make them easier to co-opt. Back in 2015, North Vancouver, Canada passed legislation allowing the use of cautionary posters and stickers at gas stations. But fossil fuel industry professionals stepped into the government’s process of designing the labels, so instead of issuing urgent cries for change, they merely stated tips to boost fuel efficiency.

Last year, the environmental legal nonprofit ClientEarth filed a legal complaint against oil giant BP which called for a total ban on all fossil fuel ads, unless they came with specific warning labels about the dangers the industry poses to the planet. They included mock ups of effective examples which clearly show the dire risks. Maybe Cambridge officials should take a look.

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A sample “tobacco-style” warning label created by ClientEarth.
Image: ClientEarth

Of course, fossil fuels are the backbone of the economy, and warning labels alone won’t change that. But they could be a small part of a huge array of actions that could encourage people to push for a clean energy transition.

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