You’re a smoker. You know smoking kills. You see the graphic warning labels every time you buy a pack of Marlboros. One day, you decide that enough is enough. You walk away from the convenience store counter and either buy some nicotine gum or go cold turkey.
You’re a driver. You think your car is contributing to global warming. Your town puts graphic warning labels on the gas pumps. One day, you decide that enough is enough. You walk away from your car at the pump and …
You may be beginning to see the problem here.
Well, however well warning labels work — or even if they do — the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is about to see if it works for gas in the way I described it. According to The Guardian, every pump in the city will come with a sticker that warns you that you’re killing the planet with each tank you fill.
The warning labels will read that burning fossil fuels has “major consequences on human health and the environment including contributing to climate change.”
Under a city ordinance that passed in January but didn’t get much attention over the course of the year because we were busy with, you know, other stuff, the policy order stated “that in order to reach our sustainability goals, the City must actively pursue innovative methods to reduce vehicular emissions.”
“Many gasoline nozzles come equipped with a ‘nozzle talker’ that could easily hold a small label,” the ordinance read.
“Requiring these labels at the gas pump will provide consumers with information about the impact of fossil fuel consumption directly at the point of purchase, which may encourage them to reduce their consumption and use alternative forms of transportation when appropriate.”
“Nozzle Talker” may sound like a contestant in the worst name for an indie rock band sweepstakes. (It’s still not as bad as Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, however.) In fact, though, it’s part of a gas pump:
— Edgewood Sunoco (@EdgewoodSunoco) August 7, 2018
Now, in Cambridge, instead of an ad for Hunt Brothers Pizza, you’ll see this:
Cambridge is good to go with this on gasoline pumps by the end of the month. 1st government warning on climate effects to consumers in the the world! Let’s get ‘er done. #WarmingLabels pic.twitter.com/YyUehaHei9
— Beyond The Pump (@BeyondPump) December 13, 2020
The stickers will be put on the nozzle talkers as soon as they’re printed, The Guardian reported.
You might be thinking that that ad certainly didn’t make you want Hunt Brothers Pizza any more than you already wouldn’t, so why would it make you think it would be time to give up the Nissan X-Trail for a bicycle? A spokesman for the city of Cambridge didn’t really provide too many answers for this when asked for comment by The Guardian.
“The city of Cambridge is working hard with our community to fight climate change,” the spokesman told the newspaper. “The gas pump stickers will remind drivers to think about climate change and, hopefully, consider non-polluting options.”
These warning labels are currently stupid. According to The Guardian, however, at least the city prevented them from becoming stupid and inadvertently funny at the same time.
“The simple text of the warning stickers is relatively staid compared to versions envisioned by climate campaigners. In a legal complaint lodged against oil giant BP, the environmental non-profit ClientEarth included mockups that showed a forest on fire with a stark list of the disastrous impacts caused by global heating,” the paper reported.
Here’s what Jamie Brooks of anti-fossil fuel group Beyond the Pump wanted: “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 told The Guardian. “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.”
Not in Cambridge, it won’t. The only reason you might associate automobile culture with that fair city is because that it’s where the mechanics from the NPR show “Car Talk” hailed from. It’s also home to Harvard University — which means its population is largely made up of liberals who have a host of public transportation options available.
In short, most of those buying gas in Cambridge already think the same thing that’s being preached from the “nozzle talker.” (Side note to the petroleum industry: Come up with a better name for that thing.)
The implication, of course, is that if it must begin somewhere, it might as well begin in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Soon, Jamie Brooks and Beyond the Pump will have these things in Port Arthur, Texas, or Green Bay, Wisconsin — or wherever you make your home.
The question is whether these warning labels nudge people in the direction people want. Phasing out gas-fueled vehicles is a far more politically fraught issue than getting people to stop smoking, after all.
When 1970s-era smokers saw a surgeon general’s warning on the side of a pack of Luckies, they might be irritated, but they probably knew that inhaling tar and other fun carcinogens wasn’t going doing wonders for their health and it wasn’t part of a larger geopolitical battle that had serious implications on how they lived their lives.
When a 2020s-era drivers pick up a gas nozzle and sees the warning label, the irritation goes beyond the government trying to get them to make better public health decisions. Many of them will know the label was slapped on the nozzle talker by the same people who support the Paris climate agreement, which sets non-binding emissions goals on signatory nations and does little to curb emissions from the world’s biggest polluter — China. For nations that do follow the rules, however, life becomes considerably more expensive.
Many will know these are the same political forces that pushed California to phase out the sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, thus making car ownership cost-inefficient for the anyone outside of the upper classes.
Many will know these stickers are championed by the kind of people who have the luxury of not having to drive. They can live in the better parts of America’s cities, work from home, get food delivered, live near public transportation — all things most Americans can’t do.
But please, throw a sticker on the nozzle talker. That’ll teach us. We’ll all just walk away from our cars en masse; there’ll be so many Ford Escapes left sitting at the pump that Cambridge’s tow-truck businesses will be booming. Hope they’ve all switched over to electric trucks by now. If not, we might need a new warning label.
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