Filling up your car may be dangerous to your health: Will you see this at your neighbourhood gas station?

A campaign aimed at convincing Toronto to allow climate change warnings on the handles of gas pump nozzles goes comes up for discussion

warning labelYou drive up to the gas pump, grab the nozzle and start filling up your car or SUV. Captive for a good two minutes, you look down and see a label on the handle of the nozzle showing a little boy staring out a window, his sad face reflecting in the glass.

“Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change which may cause anxiety and depression in children.”

Ouch. That hurts.

It’s just one of several messages that Toronto resident Robert Shirkey wants featured on gas-pump nozzles across the city, or any municipality tired of waiting for federal action on climate change.

Shirkey, a municipal lawyer, has done his research. Turns out that municipalities have the legal authority to make gas stations put the warning labels – similar to the kind now found on cigarette packages—on pump nozzles.

He’s now pitching the concept to those Toronto councillors most likely to champion the effort within city hall. The big question, of course, is whether warning labels that make us feel guilty for filling up is an effective strategy?

Will pictures of an oil-soaked duck, malnourished children roaming an African desert, or at-risk Arctic caribou convince us to ditch the car? By warning us that filling up “may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems”, “cause drought and famine” or “put up to 30 per cent of species at likely risk of extinction”, are we more likely to take transit, ride a bicycle, or purchase an electric vehicle?

Or, are they just going to make people angry? Desensitized?

Shirkey has been thinking about these questions since 2011, when the idea first popped into his head. He decided then to run for city council so he could effect change from the inside.

That plan got interrupted, however, when he opened up his own legal practice. Life got busy and his political ambitions were put on the backburner. Then one day, while on the phone with his sick grandfather, the conversation turned to self-reflection.

“He sensed that I wasn’t very happy,” recalls Shirkey. “His last words on the phone to me were ‘Do what you love.’ ”

It wasn’t long after that his grandfather passed away and an inheritance cheque arrived in the mail. “As soon as I opened up the envelope, his final words echoed with me,” Shirkey says.

That same day Shirkey went to Osgoode Hall Law School on a research mission: find out if municipalities had the power to mandate warning labels at gas stations, and that it didn’t conflict with provincial or federal legislation.

Turns out it was completely doable, and Shirkey now had the financial resources – thanks to grandpa – to spend six months of his life focused on making it happen. He founded a not-for-profit organization called Our Horizon, hired a graphics designer to create his warning labels, and began putting together an exhibit of mocked-up gas pump nozzles.

The campaign was formally launched last month and Shirkey has already gained near-unanimous support from the City Youth Council of Toronto. His idea was considered at the council committee level on March 4. In the meantime, Shirkey is building awareness one councilor at a time.

“The first step is to honestly face the problem of climate change and acknowledge it. I don’t think we’ve actually done that collectively as a society,” he says. “The value of this idea is that it’s low cost, globally unprecedented, and could potentially have a high impact.”

I asked a number of folks in the Toronto environmental and clean technology community what they thought about the idea. “Can’t see how this would convince people to drive less,” was one comment.

It may anger people, said another, “but to be honest, I’m long past the point of thinking there is much upside in coddling the public on this issue any longer.”

Councillor Mike Layton said he liked the idea. “It speaks to people precisely at the point in time when they need this message,” he said. “How that message is framed is equally as important as when they receive it.”

This article was originally posted on Corporate Knights
Toby Heaps is the co-founder and president of Corporate Knights Inc. He has written for the Financial Times, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and Investors Digest. Toby has experience working on political campaigns, including in 2006 as campaign manager for City of Toronto Councillor A. A. Heaps. Before founding Corporate Knights, Toby was the managing editor of the Mutual Fund Review magazine and Planning for Profits magazine.

4 Responses

  1. gofer1

    Telling children they have no future because of the weather is child abuse. What happened to protecting children instead of using them as props for ideological agendas of adults. Thankfully the whole crazy idea of global warming is fading away.

    • Rob Shirkey


      The idea *is* to protect children. The people pointing at climate change aren’t the problem, it’s climate change that’s the problem. Denial is an ineffective strategy; the problem will only get worse the longer we fail to address it. One could make the argument that failing to act on climate change is what really constitutes child abuse.

      FYI: Google “IPCC” for great info on climate science…



  2. Brad Zarnett

    I think child abuse is a stretch but you make an interesting point – I agree that children shouldn’t be used as pawns. Having said that, we must find compelling ways of showing people how our decisions today affect our children’s future.Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  3. Jonathan F.

    This would certainly bring a level of awareness to the average consumer towards the direct linkages between daily actions and climate change; however, I would question its efficacy over the long term. Gas is an everyday essential and consumers would quickly be desensitized due the necessity of the commodity. Perhaps, a more effective solution would be to identify the source of the gasoline (e.g. oil sands, offshore etc.) or the average life cycle carbon content. Consumers may be more inclined to choose stations or organizations that have a lesser GHG impact. I do recognize that this would be a dream, and gathering, measuring and advocating for such information would be a major challenge.