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Warning: This Gasoline Is Hazardous to Your Planet | The Nation

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Madeline Ostrander

Madeline Ostrander

Making sense of weird weather, rising waters and all things climate change.

Warning: This Gasoline Is Hazardous to Your Planet

If oil is really an addiction, would warning labels on gasoline motivate drivers to try to kick the habit?

An organization called Our Horizon wants to label Canadian gasoline pumps with evocative (sometimes graphic) images and information on climate change. (You can watch their promotional video above.) They hope eventually the campaign will become viral and international. But they are starting by encouraging Canadian municipalities to pass local laws requiring the labels.

An obvious question is, could warning labels change the behavior or attitudes of people who drive cars?

The organizers of the campaign compare the labels to those that appear on cigarette cartons, which have been partly responsible for a dramatic shift in public thinking and behavior. In 1965, about 42 percent of American adults and 49 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 smoked. Then both countries began placing warning labels on cigarette packs, starting in 1966 in the United States. Canada’s first tobacco warning labels were voluntary, beginning in 1972. The labels were among the first steps in a decades-long process of cultural and political change. Warning labels on cigarettes have become progressively more strident in both countries, and tobacco companies have fallen under ever-tighter regulations. In 2011, only 19 percent of US adults were smokers; in Canada in the same year, the figure was 17 percent.

Canada became the first nation to require full-color, graphic warning labels on its cigarettes in 2000, with designs that included grisly photographs of cancer patients, a diseased heart and bloody urine. Studies have shown that even the mild 1972 warnings in Canada made some smokers think twice about the dangers of tobacco. The newer labels, with extra shock factor, have also had a “statistically significant effect on smoking prevalence and quit attempts,” according to recent research.

One might say that adorning gasoline pumps with labels is altogether different from putting them on cigarette cartons. Buying gasoline isn’t just recreational, and it’s not just an individual choice. We have a system-wide dependence on petroleum for meeting our transportation needs.

But the leaders of the gasoline-labeling campaign aren’t primarily focused on changing consumer behavior, although that is a piece of the equation. They explain on their website:

The labels will cause some individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but, more importantly, they will create a shift in our collective demand that will facilitate meaningful action on climate change. Politicians will have more popular support to pass climate change legislation, and businesses will innovate to meet the needs of a shifting market.

This brings up another parallel between climate change and tobacco, about public information. For decades, scientists and think tanks with ties to the tobacco industry waged a misinformation campaign to cast doubt on findings that smoking causes cancer. According to historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, some of these same individuals and organizations are among the key culprits promoting inaccuracies and false information that question the validity of climate change. As one example, the website DesmogBlog has tracked connections between the Heartland Institute, now infamous for its denial of climate change, and big tobacco. Their president, Joseph Bast, has also self-published a book to “debunk the outlandish claims and comments made by anti-smoking fundamentalists.”

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Health warnings from government agencies and labels on cigarette packs have been one tool for counteracting misinformation and getting the facts on smoking directly to consumers. Labels at the gas pump might be one simple, visceral means of cutting through the noise of climate denial—communicating with the public about the connections among oil, our economic choices, our political system, and the calamity of climate change.

The terrifying intersection of resource scarcity and climate change.

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