Research shows that when labels on cigarette packages display nasty photos of the harm that smoking causes, it can help encourage smokers to kick the habit. Now, experts are looking to apply the same logic to fossil fuels.
A group of public health experts is calling for warning labels to be displayed on high-carbon products, such as on gas station pumps, energy bills, and airline tickets, to push consumers to consider how fossil fuels threaten human health.
“Warning labels connect the abstract threat of the climate emergency with the use of fossil fuels in the here and now, drawing attention to the true cost of fossil fuels pictorially or quantitatively,” the researchers wrote in a new paper, published in the British Medical Journal on Monday. “They sensitise people to the consequences of their actions, representing nudges designed to encourage users to choose alternatives to fossil fuels, thus increasing demand for zero-carbon renewable energy.”
Like smoking, fossil fuel use creates toxic air pollution which accounts for about 3.5 million premature deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. Fossil fuel use is also the biggest contributor to the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat to current and future generations.
The paper’s authors say that labels should first be rolled out in high-income nations that have contributed disproportionately to global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as on major sources of emissions in nations where they are rising rapidly.
One challenge the move to create these warning labels could face is co-optation by polluting industries. “For example, in North Vancouver, Canada, pictorial designs denoting biodiversity loss were ‘co-opted’ by the Canadian fuel industry and incorporated into a national ‘Smart fuelling’ initiative, with any threats to health omitted,” the authors wrote.
To prevent that kind of misuse, the experts wrote, the warning labels should be paired with stricter regulations on fossil fuel industry advertising, “particularly to prevent misleading claims about investments in renewable energy when these represent a minority of their portfolio.”
In a groundbreaking lawsuit filed in December, the environmental legal nonprofit ClientEarth called for a total ban on all fossil fuel ads, unless they come with “a tobacco-style health warning” about the dangers the industry poses to the planet.
Of course, ultimately, the best way to encourage people to stop using fossil fuel products is to stop companies from extracting and producing them in the first place. But there’s evidence that actions like this, by forcing people to reckon with the moral implications of fossil fuel production and use, could help the world reach a critical mass of people to pressure world leaders to get us there.