On Thursday, the city of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission voted to move forward with a mandate for labels on gas pumps explaining that fuel usage produces greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change. A letter from the president of the petroleum association was immediately presented, claiming that such labeling would violate the First Amendment rights of the station owners, while questioning the reality of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in that process. If successful, however, this mandate could set Berkeley as an example to other cities looking for ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The preliminary stickers offer a statement about the effects of driving a car that runs on fossil fuels and offers a website where more information may be obtained. This step may seem small and almost futile to people who are concerned with pollution and emissions who know that the individual consumer does not bear the most blame for this spiral of resources and environmental impact.
It may also seem misguided to discourage the use of gas and a personal car when many Berkeley citizens have no choice but to drive, and the market does not offer many alternatives to the internal combustion engine yet. But no step in the right direction is so small that it should be dismissed. As these stickers can do no perceivable harm and may achieve slight gains, they should be implemented.
Opponents claim that these labels violate the rights of gas station owners, much as those who fought against cancer-labeling on cigarette packages once claimed that tobacco corporations were unjustly censored by that requirement. It is unlikely that the First Amendment claim will nullify this measure.
Precedent allows for its success. It is possible that labeling like this may begin to appear on other products with devastating environmental impact; beef, foods flown in using jet fuel or commercial products produced through environmentally irresponsible manufacturing means. All these labels do is provide information and allow the consumer to make a more informed choice.
The city of Berkeley could do more to make driving less viable in the city, if it wishes to control emissions without simply guilting the average consumer who may have no better option. The best way to encourage people to stop driving is to make alternatives affordable, convenient and worthwhile. Although stickers at the pumps may be as effective as a string tied around an absent-minded finger, the thing we must not forget is to make actual, measurable progress.