Can Warning Labels Help Stop Climate Change?

North Vancouver, British Columbia, is undertaking a small experiment to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, one that shares more with the anti-smoking movement than other environmental initiatives.

It is the first city in the world to require all gas pumps to have warning labels. Many compare this to the warning labels on cigarette packages—rotting teeth, tar filled lungs, children inhaling second-hand smoke—a knowledge campaign often credited with drastically reducing smoking rates across America and Europe. But these labels and their champions are a little different.

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Gas pumps in North Vancouver, Canada, will have to carry warning labels about the fuel's health and climate effects.

“Putting warning labels on gas pumps seemed…cool and daring,” said Emily Kelsall, the 17-year-old who put the bylaw in motion. “We all acknowledge that climate change is a problem, but it sort of exists outside our realm of consciousness. This puts it in our face as something imminent and important.”

Kelsall first heard of the concept in a radio interview while being driven to school. Captivated, she decided to promote the idea to several local municipalities, including the city of North Vancouver where 45% of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Last June, this one woman delegation asked the City of North Vancouver to require these labels on all gas nozzles in the municipality. As of November 16, the city council unanimously passed the proposal into law, and council staff are starting their design process.

Labels like these are a quintessential “nudge”—a method of influencing choices without restricting them. For centuries, salesmen, artists, lawyers, writers, parents, and children have nudged instinctually, leveraging what they know of human nature to affect other people’s behaviors. But within the last few decades, the practice has become more intentional. Popularized in the 2006 bestselling book, Nudge, behavioral scientists and economists are systematically and quantitatively studying what makes nudges affective. Because they can be so influential, governments are nudging people to do all sorts of things: vote, save up for retirement, use less water, pay their taxes on time, exercise and now, reduce their gasoline use.

Rob Shirkey, executive of the non-profit Our Horizon, first came up with idea of labeling gas nozzles in the summer of 2011. He was stuck in bumper-to-bumper rush hour on the 401, a super-highway in Toronto eighteen lanes wide at some points, listening to a radio discussion of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. “There I was…thousands of cars in eyesight just burning fossil fuels,” Shirkey said. “Every single caller, every single pundit and every single radio person is saying ‘Shame on BP! Shame on BP! Shame on BP!’ Meanwhile, I think to myself, you know, if I put on my X-ray goggles I can see the gas tanks…we’re all just sitting on top of gasoline that needed to be refined from oil,” he said. “There’s this complete and utter disconnect.”

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Two of Our Horizon's warning labels

The disconnect is not limited to huge oil spills. “At the end of the day, we do know that burning fossil fuels impacts climate change in a negative way,” said North Vancouver city councilor Linda Buchanan. “So let’s make that link.”

Our Horizon’s provocative warning labels try to do just that. Shirkey tried to bolster his design with behavioral research, such as the European Union’s meta-analyses of cigarette label campaigns. These studies examine many aspects of warning labels including the use of images, colored text, and negative messaging.

But psychologist Marc Green, a warning labels specialist, is skeptical of their effectiveness. “With a lot of those studies, it’s impossible to isolate the effects of the labels from the larger campaign,” Green said. Furthermore, he thinks the content of warnings is not nearly as impactful as the viewers’ beliefs. “This is the great Catch-22 of warnings,” Green said. “If you don’t believe that something is dangerous then you won’t pay attention to warnings…which is ironic!”

People’s beliefs are also at the forefront of Buchanan’s mind. “There are some concerns that if the messages were so negative that it would perhaps make them angry and perhaps turn them off the whole issue.” Caroline Jackson, the city’s environmental sustainability manager overseeing the label design process, agreed. “If you provide only a negative message, that can work for certain segments of a population…but it can actually alienate others,” Jackson said.

Green agreed that ineffective warnings can actively turn people off the issue. “Warnings aren’t for free,” Green said. “It poisons the well…and contributes to people’s general disregard for warnings.”

Jackson, therefore, plans to couple the warning messages with suggestions for what people can do to reduce their gas use: check their tire pressure, carpool, use public transit (which Jackson has already labored hard to improve). “We want people to join us and see that they can make a difference,” Jackson said. For emphasis, Jackson actually calls them “Information Labels” rather than “Warning Labels.”

Information is a powerful part of any nudge, according to series of studies out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Verena Tiefenbeck’s research has shaped a product to reduce the second most energy intensive behavior in the typical home—water heating. After several years of test runs, data collection and design modification, Tiefenbeck has optimized her nudge, a small water tracker that attaches to a shower head.

“In the shower, people are just enjoying the warm water on their skin,” Tiefenbeck said. Energy expenses, water bills, and climate are “so far from their minds.” But the meter, powered by the flow of water, confronts the person with an ever increasing tally of how much water they are using as well as the temperature of that water.

This increases what psychologists call the “salience” of the financial and environmental consequences in real time. And real time feedback is essential. In Tiefenbeck’s study, control group meters that only delivered the information after the shower was completed had a much lower effect on the water consumption.

The numbers are also salient because they’re put into understandable terms. “At least people can relate to gallons or liters,” Tiefenbeck said. Alternative models that reported the information in more abstract terms like carbon dioxide emissions or kilowatt hours did not have as powerful an effect. This didn’t surprise Tiefenbeck. “My friends don’t spend their day chasing after kilowatts,” she said.

But in the land of nudges, the distinction between information and warning often blurs. One Tiefenbeck’s models depicted a little polar bear whose iceberg slowly shrinks over the course of a long shower, which Tiefenbeck’s subjects liked so much the company made the bear a permanent feature. This final design reduces the average household energy consumption by 22%, according to her most recent studies.

Do the effects last, though? In Green’s experience, people often get warning fatigue. “Show them a warning now, and within a few months they won’t even see it anymore,” he said.

Tiefenbeck’s meter has so far sustained it’s affect over several years of data collection in the Netherlands. More studies are currently underway in Singapore and Korea.

Caroline Jackson has a plan to combat warning fatigue among North Vancouver drivers. Her team plans to make many label designs which can rotate in and out. “We want them to be fresh,” Jackson said.

To Tiefenbeck though, no approach is certain. When asked what makes an environmental nudge successful, she responded simply: “Field studies.”