From fossil fuels to forest fires: Let’s finally connect the dots

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It turns out that we would rather sit and watch the world burn than bear the discomfort of a tiny sticker that says it’s on fire. Let me explain.

In early 2013, I launched a nonprofit to lobby governments to mandate climate change and air pollution disclosures, or “warning labels,” for gas pumps, similar to those we see on tobacco packages. Several months later, I would connect with Bay Area resident Jamie Brooks, who was advocating for the same thing. For two years, while he engaged representatives in cities such as Berkeley and San Francisco, I couch-surfed across Canada to connect with politicians. In 2015, I finally managed to visit the Bay Area so we could lobby local legislators together. Our goal: to have Californian governments initiate a simple precedent for the world to follow.

Combustion of fossil fuels has partly contributed to the environmental conditions behind the hundreds of forest fires now raging through California. António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has even gone so far as to describe climate change as an existential threat. So why is it that a product that comes with such catastrophic harms — gasoline — doesn’t have a warning label attached to it? Why is it that we caution people about the temperature of their coffee, but we don’t warn them about a commodity that may lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it?

When it comes to our climate crisis, there’s a disconnect between cause and effect. A warning at the pump that reads something such as, “Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change and more forest fires” would help us to connect the dots. It would make the link more tangible, more proximate. The label would close the experiential gap between our use of fossil fuels and their environmental impacts, creating a greater social impetus to address climate change. Ultimately, it’s a simple, inexpensive approach to make hidden costs visible.

The simple act of pumping gas has become a habitual, automatic behavior that has been normalized for generations. It is the perfect downstream environment to perpetuate the status quo. But warning labels, which would introduce some friction to an otherwise innocuous transaction, can denormalize it. When it comes to change, a bit of discomfort with the status quo is a good thing.

Not only would these disclosures provide some impetus for individual behavioral change, but, more importantly, they would also stimulate greater demand for reform, accelerating the delivery of solutions from governments and businesses. If necessity is the mother of invention, these labels inject just a little more necessity into the system.

So how have our advocacy efforts gone? Well, have you noticed any climate warnings on gas pumps? Mr. Brooks and I have been at it for years now, but we keep running into the same problem. And while it’s not strategic to alienate the people I hope to influence, I need to be truthful: One of the main obstacles to getting these warnings on gas pumps is political cowardice.

A conversation I once had with a politician comes to mind. After giving him the elevator pitch and showing him a sample design, he objected, “But people don’t want to see that!” It was a rare, unguarded moment of candor. I wanted to reply, “Well, that’s the f— ing point,” but I bit my tongue and went with a rehearsed response. Still, the lesson behind that conversation has always stuck with me: The core reason the disclosures will have an impact is the same reason a politician will never implement them.

A couple of years ago, Bay Area cities sued oil companies, alleging, in part, that these companies were aware of the harms of their products but failed to warn consumers. Governments used litigation to point the finger at industry while at the same time declining to write legislation to mandate the very lack of disclosure they were alleging. There would be no more fitting a remedy for the industry’s failure to warn consumers than a government-mandated warning on gas pumps. But of course, it’s much easier to blame others than it is to take responsibility.

It’s been almost three years since former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called for warnings on gas pumps at the COP23 United Nations climate conference. While a handful of jurisdictions have pursued the concept to varying degrees, they have yet to fully implement the labels, or else have pursued labels that do not convey an effective message. Most governments have yet to consider them at all.

Some Bay Area representatives claimed to be waiting for judicial guidance on Berkeley’s cellphone radiation warnings, but such concerns were put to rest last year when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an industry group’s challenge to the law. The legislative path for warnings on gas pumps is now clear.

As I see news footage of California’s wildfires, I can’t help but think to myself that we should have done this years ago. Warning labels are the low-hanging fruit — they cost just pennies to print. If governments can’t even manage to put a simple sticker on a gas pump, what hope do we have in addressing climate change?

For me, several years of discouraging advocacy suggest that we would rather sit and watch the world burn than bear the discomfort of a tiny sticker that says it’s on fire. Please, prove me wrong.

Rob Shirkey is a lawyer and environmental advocate. Find him on Twitter at @robshirkey.