‘A moral failing.’ Cambridge installs fuel warning labels

Source: By Avery Ellfeldt, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2021

Drivers in Cambridge, Mass., soon will be forced to grapple with climate change — and their contributions to it — every time they fuel their cars.

Local officials this week plan to affix labels to the city’s gas pumps that warn customers about the human causes and impacts of global warming. The installation comes nearly a year after Cambridge first passed an ordinance that mandated fuel pump warning labels in an effort to raise awareness about climate change — and nudge consumers to curb their own carbon footprints when possible.

According to the City Council, transportation generates approximately 43% of Massachusetts’ planet-warming emissions. The local lawmakers hope that “factual and uncontroversial” stickers at gas stations could prompt consumers to confront that reality.

The labels are neon yellow, with bold red text that says: “Warning: Burning Gasoline, Diesel, and Ethanol has major consequences on human health and the environment including contributions to climate change.”

The city will cover the costs of installation, which will take place at about 20 gas stations throughout the city, according to Patricia Nolan, a first-term City Council member who supported the ordinance. She said those costs are expected to be minimal given Cambridge’s relatively small size and that city staff members already visit gas stations for other maintenance purposes.

“People make choices all the time,” Nolan said in an interview. She said she hopes that by providing drivers with additional information about climate change, they could be encouraged to drive less, or even invest in a more climate-friendly vehicle.

The origins of Cambridge’s idea date back to at least 2016, when the council first discussed the concept with climate advocates Jamie Brooks and Robert Shirkey. For years, the pair — who head partner advocacy campaigns in California and Canada — have pushed lawmakers in various cities to do the same (Climatewire, April 17).

There has been some incremental progress on the issue outside Massachusetts. Canada’s municipality of North Vancouver, for instance, in 2015 passed a law requiring gas station owners to install climate warnings on pump handles.

But according to Brooks, who manages the California-based campaign Think Beyond the Pump, the initiative became somewhat of a “public relations green wash” when industry groups partnered with the city to carry out the effort. The labels that resulted contained text about fossil fuels and climate change, but they were made less impactful by large “helpful hints” on energy efficiency, Brooks said.

In his eyes, Cambridge is the first city to implement fuel warning labels that have a chance to shift consumer behavior. He said that’s the case because they carry a distinct public health message and “clearly outline the danger and the harms caused from combustion.”

Public health experts have made a similar argument for the idea.

In March, experts from the United States, India and the United Kingdom said in a letter that warning labels are a low-cost, scalable intervention to help ordinary people connect their daily choices with the greater threats posed by climate change.

They said warning labels could be effective on fuel pumps, but also on airline tickets and energy bills.

“They [sensitize] people to the consequences of their actions, representing nudges, designed to encourage users to choose alternatives to fossil fuels, thus increasing demand for zero-carbon renewable energy,” the experts wrote in The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical trade journal.

But even with those possible benefits, a number of challenges stand in the way of their widespread implementation, sources say.

Perhaps most significant is potential industry opposition, which stems from past corporate concerns that warning labels can interrupt commerce and violate companies’ right to free speech. That’s the case, opponents argue, because mandated warning labels — whether they are on tobacco products, cellphones or fuel pumps — can force companies to advance policy agendas or ideas they disagree with, or that aren’t good for business.

In Cambridge, those concerns were addressed by ensuring the stickers were based on scientific facts about climate change.

According to Nolan, it was also argued by Cambridge’s city solicitor’s office that “the city has a free speech right” to educate consumers about the dangers posed by a product they are purchasing.

Besides, Nolan added, it would be difficult for oil and gas companies to say that fossil fuel warnings are controversial or erroneous “when they themselves knew [about global warming] 30 or 40 years ago and hid it from the public.”

“The car companies knew this; the oil and gas companies knew this,” she said. “We cannot ignore this … and it’s a moral failing that we haven’t done more of this and been more explicit.”