Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT, is ground zero for the tree hugger crowd in the United States, closely followed by Berkeley on the Left Coast. So it should surprise no one that it will be the first US city to place warning labels on the gas pumps within its city limits. Warning labels similar to those approved by Cambridge are already found in Sweden. Oddly enough, a campaign advocating for similar stickers in Berkeley was unsuccessful.
It’s not that the warnings are harsh or designed to frighten the children. In fact, they are quite mild and far less assertive than many climate activists wanted. Jamie Brooks, a member of the climate advocacy group Beyond the Pump, tells The Guardian he pushed for language with a sharper tone. He wanted them to say, “Continuing to burn gasoline (or diesel) worsens the climate emergency, with major projected impacts on your health increasing over time.”
“Labels are designed to create a feeling like someone has broken a rule or violated a law,” Brooks says. “This feeling, along with increased social pressure, like smoking labels, can translate to a collapse in trust for the current system, thereby increasing the public appetite for alternatives.”
ClientEarth, an environmental non-profit, wanted the labels to show a forest on fire with a stark list of the disastrous impacts caused by global heating. It argues that more visceral warnings with greater emotional content would influence people in much the same way as graphic images of gum disease and heart failure on cigarette packets forced many people to acknowledge the health risks of chewing or smoking tobacco.
The stickers approved by the city are being printed and will be placed on pumps in Cambridge “fairly soon” according to a spokesperson for the city, who added, “The city of Cambridge is working hard with our community to fight climate change. The gas pump stickers will remind drivers to think about climate change and hopefully consider non-polluting options.” The placement of the stickers was approved by an ordinance passed by the city last January. Cambridge has a plan in place to reduce carbon emissions by 80% and offset the remainder by 2050. Meeting those goals will make it one of the first US cities to be carbon neutral.
The warning label idea is not new. 350.org started advocating for them in 2014 and Arnold Schwarzenegger added his voice to the chorus in 2017. Will warning labels save the Earth? Of course not. But they could lead some people to reassess their position on global heating and that could lead to changes that promote a sustainable environment. People still smoke despite warning labels on packs of cigarettes but attitudes toward smoking have changed considerably from the days when tobacco companies used to pay doctors to promote their products.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step, according to a Chinese proverb. Today, warning labels in Cambridge. Tomorrow, warning labels all across the US. In the not too distant future, a warning label on every pump in the world. If you want to give the Earth a Christmas present this year, decide to advocate for similar warning labels in your community. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”