Climate Warnings: A Simple Sticker with the Potential for Global Impact

This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Rob Shirkey, founder of the non-profit organization Our Horizon to discuss their efforts in climate change awareness. In an unprecedented, qualitative messaging strategy that can reach the public on a global scale, Our Horizon proposes climate change warning labels on gas pumps that sends one simple message: your actions contribute to our shared ecological crisis.

The Problem

Climate change has been described by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, as “an existential challenge for the whole human race”. It is an extremely overwhelming problem that is both geographically and temporally removed from our present-day actions. Consequences from the emissions we actively release today are not immediately occurring, and impacts from these emissions will be felt at different speeds on different scales in various regions around the world. This can all be quite discouraging, but the first step in addressing any issue is having the courage to face it, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Climate change is no different: we must #facethechange.

Our Carbon Budget

In December 2009, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, which resulted in the Copenhagen Accord, contained several key elements including a long-term goal of “limiting the maximum global average temperate increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. If this sets the ceiling for temperature change, scientists estimate that humans can emit approximately 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide by midcentury while respecting the 2 degree limit, demonstrated in the figure below.


However, The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists, estimate that the current proven oil, gas, and coal reserves of fossil fuel companies is equivalent to about 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or five times the amount we can emit while maintaining a 2 degree warming. If we were to emit the remainder of our proven fossil fuel reserves, the result would be a temperature increase of about 5-6 degrees, which would shift our planet into unrecognizable territory that could not sustain life as we know it.


Communicating Climate Change Risk

At the beginning of our discussion, Rob commented on how the medium used for environmental awareness often allows for passive consumption of this crucial information. Watching documentaries, reading books or news articles, listening to podcasts… this media, by virtue of their form, allows us be passive observers. Additionally, Rob noted that those engaged with these subjects of environmentalism and climate change are usually already well aware and acquainted with the problem, making it difficult for these select media to attract attention from the wider public who are captivated by their own personal interests and biases. Rob finds that discourse on climate change also continues to be labeled as an upstream problem: it’s the tar sands, the oil companies, big business, or pipelines. The vast majority of our attention is currently focused upstream, but the reality is that the emissions we are most concerned with come from downstream, end-use rather than from extraction. It comes from us! On a global scale, cities are responsible for about 70% of carbon emissions, and municipalities in Canada control close to half of the nation’s emissions (Our Horizon, 2014). The graph below displays the Well (point of extraction) to Wheel (point of use) Emissions Chart, which clearly demonstrates a majority of emissions resulting from vehicle operation. This is not at all where the media and public’s attention currently lie. It’s about time we start identifying who the real culprits are in this emission scandal, and if we’re serious about action, this is the conversation we need to be having.


How disconnected are we? We don’t even see the product. Rob finds that this disconnect between action and consequence provides the perfect “recipe to perpetuate the status quo”. This misconception allows for complacency, and has resulted in gas consumption as an extremely “normalized” behaviour. It is habitual, automatic, “so part of the fabric of everyday living that we hardly think twice about it”.. or its consequences.

Comprehending Climate Change Risk

Two problems arise when we attempt to comprehend the issue of climate change. First, psychologists find that humans prefer rewards that arrive sooner rather than later. This is referred to as the current moment bias, or hyperbolic discounting, a cognitive bias that gives us:

“A really hard time imagining ourselves in the future and altering our behaviours and expectations accordingly. As such, most people usually opt for gratification now, while leaving discomfort for later – a serious psychological deficiency when considering the environmental consequences of such a short-term way of thinking”
– (Kingsmith, 2013).

This short-termism can be seen in all realms of society from our 4-year governmental terms to our next-quarter financial focus. This makes it extremely difficult to implement long-term environmental policy that requires increased investment and taxation at the outset.

Another issue that comes up when tackling the climate crisis is the problem of diffusion of responsibility. As one individual, your personal contribution to the problem is quite miniscule. As a collective, our actions are altering the chemistry of our planet. Psychologists find that people are “less likely to take action or feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of a large group of people” (Cherry, 2014). This problem is tackled in CPR training when you are told to point someone out and specifically instruct him or her to call 911. Instead of relying on someone in the larger group to potentially make the call, one person is given the responsibility to complete the task and the liability of a life rests in their hands.

Due to these psychological tendencies, challenges arise in communicating climate risk, and the deeply imbedded use of fossil fuels in today’s economy remains completely normalized. In order to both facilitate and also accelerate the change necessary to address the climate issue, a disruption to the status quo is required. Rob says that this means “we must create a broader dissatisfaction with the current market options and solutions while also denormalizing what we take for granted”, resulting in a loosened grip on the status quo which can help to facilitate a transition to a low-carbon economy.

The call for a low-carbon economy is reflected across the globe on many frontiers: President Obama declared that the 2 degree target is a necessity; Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England commented that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves are “stranded” and literally unburnable; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a climate framework that includes pricing carbon; and the G7 leading industrial nations agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. Though these thoughtful leaders are certainly taking steps in the right direction, there’s a larger issue at hand when we continue to manufacture automobiles that have the same fuel efficiency as the Ford Model-T (manufactured in 1908). And as the presidential race continues in the United States, it should be noted that none of the major Republican presidential candidates even “believes” in human-induced climate change. How can we possibly expect to adequately address this issue if there is no political will to support it? We require innovative strategies that can shift our social perception on the problem in order to create broad room for reform that brings environmentally oriented solutions to market.

The Solution

Our Horizon is campaigning across North America and overseas to make climate change warnings on gas pumps a mandatory feature. Founded in psychology, sociology, economics and communications theory, founder Rob Shirkey finds that these warning labels make climate change a more tangible, comprehensible problem. There is no other instance where fossil fuels literally flow from the palm of your hand. This unique intervention connects the problem with the end-user in a way that provides an element of ownership and liability and creates an aspect of disruption that brings the future consequences of climate change (ocean acidification, species extinction, air pollution) right to your fingertips. Rob finds that the warning labels on gas pumps creates a transition between being a passive observer to an active participant, observing “there is nothing out there that makes us consume the risks of climate change in quite this way”. By virtue of placement on this unique medium (gas pumps), the information displayed is accessing people that aren’t otherwise exposed to this information. Instead of pointing fingers upstream, the label projects the problem downstream to the end-user, facilitating a sense of connection to, and responsibility for, the problem of climate change.

Climate Change Warning Label

Rob stated that the greatest obstacle for a low-carbon economy is “the systemic inertia of the status quo”. Consuming gasoline at a pump has become so dangerously normalized that when he asked his mom about her day (Rob had sneakily checked her vehicle’s near-empty fuel meter earlier in the day, and later found it full), she answered without question “work, groceries, home”. It wasn’t until Rob pointedly asked her about possibly stopping at a gas station that his mom was finally reminded about the additional errand she had completed.

By implementing this warning label, municipalities can take a simple first step that not only causes emission reduction, it creates dissatisfaction with what was once a completely normalized behaviour which can stimulate broader demand for political reform and encourages industry to bring alternative solutions to market. By making the personal connection to the problem more explicit with the end-user, changes can be driven upstream which requires demands for solutions from policy-makers and industry. Rob claims that this strategic intervention helps to signal to industry that the public is no longer interested in current market solutions, and creates incentives for businesses to invest in research and development, innovate, and most importantly to maximize their opportunity to capture a significant share of this fast-growing pro-environmental market.

Why it will work, and how it is realistically the least we should do

In 2001, Canada became the first country on the planet to require picture-based health warnings on cigarette packages. Since then, more than 60 countries have implemented these labels on tobacco products (Our Horizon, 2014). Health warning labels are a unique initiative since they are delivered at the time of consumption. Virtually all smokers are therefore exposed to the intervention, and pack-a-day smokers can potentially be exposed to the warnings over 7,000 times per year. In 2009 the European Union commissioned a meta-study reviewing scientific literature on the effectiveness of tobacco labels. Including over 200 studies, this analysis is the most comprehensive on the subject, concluding that tobacco labels increase consumers’ knowledge about the health consequences, contribute to a change in consumer attitudes and behaviour, and are also crucial to effective tobacco control policy.

While Our Horizon’s climate change labels can often be compared to the tobacco label, the health impacts of a smoker are relatively individualized (apart from the shared health bills we pay for through our taxes). Climate change, however, brings about a collective impact thus requiring collective action. The successes in tobacco health warnings show how influential this idea just might be.

In November 2015, the City of North Vancouver’s Mayor and Council unanimously passed a bylaw to make climate change warning labels mandatory on gas pumps, and is the first city in Canada (and on the planet) to do so. Interest has been demonstrated in a number of regions across Canada and in Europe, and praise has been exhibited around the world for this incredibly unique idea. Our Horizon has been building a massive database of politicians’ emails and plans to send an email blast to share this compelling idea and engage with leaders on a global scale to implement legislation for this label in their own local municipality. This includes images that the community can relate to and empathize with, as well as a link to their local government’s website which would provide options individuals can engage with at the present moment to reduce their carbon footprint. Ideas Rob shared range from carpooling and transit apps to the local bike network to regional rebates on electric vehicles or energy insulation in the home. My home province of Ontario currently offers drivers up to $14,000 in incentives to switch away from gas-powered vehicles (!!!)

These climate change warning labels are not just about awareness, nor is it just about reducing gas consumption, though these are two crucially important steps towards a more sustainable society. These labels are about informative risk disclosure. This leads to that. These labels are factual, neutral, and informed by hope through the instigation of change. And in fact, it is the least we can do. Climate change, Rob declares, is a market failure. Our current economic infrastructure fails to account for the environmental externalities of our society’s activity. Externalities include various costs and benefits that result from the use of a product that are not reflected in price. For fossil fuel use, this includes coastal adaptation to sea-level rise, property damage due to extreme weather, health costs, crop failures… the list goes on. “But what about species?” asks Rob. “Human suffering? Mass migration? How do you put a dollar value on these impacts?” Most crucial to this campaign is its ability to engage with our sense of humanity, something that a price signal never could. Rob pointed out that “it is incumbent on the distributor of a good to disclose the risks to the end-user”. These labels help make the problem of climate change a little more real, tangible, and proximate, while addressing many of the reasons why we fail to adequately address the issue. It creates the ideal social environment to enable solutions that address climate change in a meaningful and serious way. These labels provide the opportunity for the honest disclosure of extremely relevant information to the market, and allows for the markets to respond accordingly. When considering the disclosure of risk in today’s over-protective society (yes, the coffee is hot when you first receive it from the drive-thru, and no, you shouldn’t put that plastic bag over your head), Rob states that “risk disclosure doesn’t get any more material than this”. The burning of fossil fuels is altering our climate systems in a way that threatens the very survival of our species.

It is 2015 and we need to talk about how we are going to move forward as a society on a reduced carbon or carbon-free diet and it is going to be a challenge.” Stated by Darrel Mussatto, Mayor of North Vancouver.

But as history has shown us time and again, it only takes one to start a movement…


Sophia SannittiSophia Sanniti is currently completing a Masters in Environmental Studies at York University, with a particular focus on alternatives to our structurally pro-growth economy (and society) in order to align human activities within the finite limits of our biosphere. She plans to question the growth imperative, and intends to investigate the unconscious motivations behind capital accumulation. Sophia is working in partnership with a PhD-level research group called Economics for the Anthropocene. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


Photos Courtesy of Our Horizon

Cherry, K. (2014). What is diffusion of responsibility? About Health: Psychology. Accessed 13 March 2016 from

Kingsmith, A. (2013). The psyche behind Canada’s environmental apathy. Desmog Canada. Accessed 13 March 2016 from

Our Horizon. (2014). #Facethechange: Changing communities in a changing climate – Report on climate change and air pollution warning labels on gas pumps. Volume 1.1. Accessed 13 March 2016 from

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