#FaceTheChange: Disrupting the Climate Change Status Quo

#FaceTheChange: Disrupting the Climate Change Status Quo

In early 2013, I launched a not-for-profit organization in Toronto with a globally-unprecedented approach to climate change. Last fall, a colleague brought my concept to COP19, the United Nations’ climate change conference in Warsaw, Poland. Upon seeing our idea, a delegate at the conference said, “I’ve been to all 19 COP meetings and I’ve never seen an idea so simple yet so powerful.”

What’s our idea? We’re lobbying municipalities to require gasoline retailers to place climate change and air pollution warning labels on their gas pump nozzles. The idea forces us to confront our greatest challenge. To learn more, please watch my recent TEDx talk or download our legal report.

People often compare our labels to those on tobacco products – and while research shows that those labels are effective – our idea is particularly compelling when considered in the context of climate change.

First, climate change can be understood as a problem of no feedback. There is a delay between cause and effect. Psychologists observe that we prefer interests that are small and near in time relative to those that are significant and experienced farther in the future. In the absence of feedback to signal a need to alter our behaviour, we fall victim to this cognitive bias. Our warning labels counteract this effect by bringing future consequences – like extreme weather, property damage, and ocean acidification – into the here and now. In doing so, they build feedback to help us respond to climate change in more adaptive ways.

Second, climate change can also be understood as a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contribution to the problem is small; collectively, our actions dangerously alter the chemistry of our planet. Social psychologists know that when responsibility for something is shared among many, we often fail to act. Our warning labels address this by locating responsibility right in the palm of your hand.  As simple as our idea is, there is nothing like it that connects us to these problems in such a direct way. The idea truly is revolutionary.

Finally, climate change can also be understood as a problem of negative externalities. Where mechanisms such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade regimes seek to price these externalities, our idea uses images and text to communicate these costs to the marketplace in a qualitative way. In the abstract, both approaches achieve the same thing. On the ground, our idea nurtures a focus that engages our sense of humanity in a way that a price signal never could. The concept is a market-friendly, non-prescriptive approach to transform communities.

In Canada, discourse around climate change revolves around the oil sands, pipelines and shipping, but we rarely question the simple act of pumping gas. There is a complete disconnect. The warning labels take this unexamined act and draw attention to it. In creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing mobility solution, they stimulate demand for alternatives. A complacent, disconnected marketplace will never affect change upstream; engaging consumer demand can finally enable us to address these issues in a meaningful way.

Label - Drought

By disrupting the status quo, the labels shake us out of our sense of complacency and provide impetus for us to do better. The labels create conditions that favour reform. Politicians will have more support to pass climate legislation, invest in public transit, build bike lanes and develop complete communities. Businesses will also innovate to meet the needs of a shifting market. Communities that collectively acknowledge the reality of climate change – communities that pass our labels into law – will have a head start at developing the solutions of tomorrow and will prosper in the long-run.

The cities of Berkeley and West Vancouver recently voted to pursue our concept (54% and 41% of overall greenhouse gas emissions in these cities are from transportation, respectively). The Region of Waterloo has also identified the idea as an item for further consideration. While I’m heartened by these examples, I’m also left wondering where is everybody else? I’ve spent my entire life watching politicians dither on the greatest challenge of our time. The sad reality for my generation is that our leadership is pathetic. There is simply no other word for it.

The first step in addressing any problem is to honestly face it. If we don’t even have the courage to acknowledge our problem – if we can’t even put a simple sticker on a gas pump – what hope do we have in actually addressing climate change? Let us finally face what we’re up against so we can begin to move forward in meaningful ways.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

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