How environmental warning labels at gas pumps could change our transportation culture

The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent. July 2019 was the warmest month in Earth’s recorded history. Average temperatures in some parts of the U.S., including the Los Angeles region, much of the Rocky Mountains, a swath of Michigan, and a densely populated stretch of the Northeast, have risen more than two degrees centigrade since 1895. The warming has already contributed to rising sea levels that threaten the habitability of our coasts and lethal “500-” or “1,000-year” weather events that have repeatedly affected the same location — during just the past few years.

As transportation is the U.S.’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and every gallon of gasoline consumed results in $3.80 in environmental damage, sustainable mobility could help bring this global threat under control. There are plenty of proposed ways to make this happen, most of which are designed to nudge the economics of transportation towards more sustainable modes.

For example, transit expansions, complete streets projects, urban highway removals, elimination of parking minimums, restrictions on internal combustion engines, and electric vehicle charging stations all directly target transportation supply. Transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, meanwhile, typically reward sustainable choices (think employer transit benefit programs, flexible telework options, and simplified transit fare structures) or account for negative transportation externalities (using tools such as carbon taxes, congestion pricing, and market-priced parking).

All of these approaches could make a difference, especially if rolled out in tandem with each other. But fully implementing any of them requires action from our elected leaders and, accordingly, widespread support from the public, rendering them susceptible to resistance.

While powerful special interests are a prominent part of this resistance, much of the issue stems from the sociological side of the automobile. Most people understand that climate change as a whole is real, but they might not realize the potential impact it could have on their own lives. Thus, before we can restructure the economics of transportation, we must give people the resources they need to make more informed transportation decisions.

One simple idea: environmental warning labels — or, literally, warming labels — on gas pumps.

Car culture — sold to Americans through freedom-promising advertisements and reinforced by our built environment — influences our actions in ways difficult to perceive. Many people see their vehicles as emblematic of their social status and goals, and even those who would prefer to use other options may submit to the automobile due to a fear of social isolation. Public transportation, on the other hand, has been slapped with an array of incorrect, but widely believed stereotypes that can be summarized with one word: failure.

Like the U.S., Sweden also has no shortage of car culture. But there, gas pumps will feature warming labels — officially, “climate impact and origins of all fuels” labels — starting next year, thanks to legislation championed by Parliament Member Karolina Skog and the Swedish Association of Green Motorists. According to Skog, the legislation succeeded because people yearn to better understand gasoline’s initially-invisible externalities that, in the future, will come back to harm people who use the product.

Warming labels would work on two levels. Firstly, they encourage oil companies to explore alternative fuel sources and reduce the environmental impact of their gasoline, as the ability to post relatively low emissions on a label could serve as a selling point. Also, they give people purchasing gas a better opportunity to consider the impact of their consumption, potentially driving conversation that could change present-day sociology around cars.

To date, gasoline has remained largely exempt from transparency standards typical for other products with hidden negative effects. Examples of such other products include:

  • Tobacco: Warning labels on cigarette packages are one of the most influential examples of information transparency. Started in 1965, when smoking was socially embraced and permitted just about anywhere, the labels drew attention to issues such as second-hand smoke. This change in the conversation helped make airplanes, bars, and other public places smoke-free, and research has tied the labels to lower smoking rates overall.
  • Appliances: Products like refrigerators and washing machines consume substantial amounts of electricity, creating emissions that we may not see (given that the power plants where they occur may be located hundreds of miles away) but that impact the environment nonetheless. Energy star labels, however, have helped make relatively energy-efficient products more appealing to consumers.
  • Carcinogens: California’s Proposition 65, passed in the late 1980s, requires consumer products that contain known carcinogens to include a label disclosing the threat. Without Prop-65 labels, consumers would not be able to visually distinguish a product that contains a carcinogen from one that does not. But the labels, in requiring manufacturers to be more transparent, have encouraged them to remove cancer-causing agents from their products to the extent possible.

Warming labels, like the other forms of informational transparency described above, don’t require consumers to change their day-to-day lives. They won’t make driving more difficult, subsidize transit, or paint bike lines.

However, by helping people make more informed, but still-voluntary choices, such labels have the potential to influence how people think and talk about transportation. For example, if people who enjoy romantic drives along the beach considered that the environmental impacts of such driving could render such an experience impossible in the future, they may ask for better bus service or bike infrastructure along the beach. Such sentiment would help build support for a tangible change in transportation supply that would help nudge the market towards where it needs to be.

Due to this possibility, it’s not surprising that — though the public wants to do something about climate change — the oil industry has resisted warming labels.

In Sweden, Skog was able to overcome the industry’s influence to get label legislation enacted. But in the U.S., the Western States Petroleum Association and other industry organizations have threatened to sue any jurisdiction to require labels on First Amendment grounds, claiming that the effects of climate change are “the state and the city’s view” rather than scientific fact. This threat has stalled once-promising efforts in places such as Berkeley, Ca.

In Canada, the industry was not able to stop North Vancouver from mandating warming labels. However, they were able to influence the labels’ design, manipulating them to make it seem that trivial steps like increasing tire pressure can lead to a quick fix. As a result, the city’s labels gloss over the deeper infrastructure- and culture-based problems underlying gasoline’s contribution to climate change and other environmental harm.

Successful policy brings social and economic norms into line with public good, and mandated warming labels on gas pumps would help accomplish this in the transportation sector. However, such a mandate would be but one step in a never-ending tug-of-war with profit-driven industries that constantly seek to align our social habits with their goals.

For example, despite the aforementioned success of warning labels on cigarette packages, tobacco’s popularity among teenagers is resurging with the advent of vaping. Though e-cigarettes may seem like something new and trendy, funding from traditional tobacco companies — such as the $12.8 billion Richmond, Va.-area based Altria (formerly Phillip Morris Companies) invested in privately-held e-cigarette manufacturer Juul last year — has helped make them ubiquitous.

Another recent, industry-driven trend has substantially affected our mobility. Following years of urban revitalization and increasing transit ridership, the rise of ride-hailing has lured many city dwellers who would have otherwise walked, biked, or ridden public transportation back into automobiles. Whether with colleagues heading to a meeting across town or among a group of bar-hopping friends, people have unwittingly helped companies like Uber — heavily supported by subsidies from auto and oil companies before going public earlier this year — become brand-name verbs.

But in drawing more attention to the environmental impacts of the fuel that powers our vehicles, warming labels could help change the social norms of transportation, making sustainable mobility the “cool” way of getting around. Such a transformation could catalyze a virtuous cycle by de-normalizing the consumption of conventional gasoline, opening up opportunities for versatile companies willing to embrace the new norm of gasoline-free transport.

Originally published at on September 27, 2019.

Founder of the non-profit, Think Beyond the Pump. The group promotes a climate/public health warning label on all points of fossil purchase.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store