It’s Time To Treat Fossil Fuels as a Public Health Crisis

It’s Time To Treat Fossil Fuels as a Public Health Crisis

Gas Station off road 66 off the Mojave Desert.


WORDS BY Yessenia Funes

PHOTOGRAPHS BY LAURA beltrán villamizar

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts is the first in the U.S. to display warning labels on gas pumps in the name of climate change. These labels come as an effort to reduce transportation emissions, the leading contributor to greenhouse gases in the U.S. and are one of the first steps the city is taking to address that.

Gas Station off road 66 off the Mojave Desert.
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Drivers of Cambridge, Massachusetts may stumble upon an unwelcome surprise when they stop to fill their tanks this year. The city—home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is the first in the U.S. to roll out climate change warning labels on all of its 20 gas stations, according to Lee Gianetti, the city’s director of communications. Some advocates prefer the term “warming labels.”


Roughly a year ago, the city, with a population of over 118,000, passed an ordinance to implement these labels as part of an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, they have gone live. In this NBC Boston video, you can see what the labels look like, reading, “Burning gasoline, diesel, and ethanol has major consequences on human health and on the environment, including contributing to climate change.”


Welcome to The Frontline, where cars are on the chopping block. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Research has shown that people who live closest to major traffic points, such as highways, are largely communities of color and immigrants. Reducing our dependence on cars will be key to addressing this public health crisis. But are “warming labels” enough?





The Food and Drug Administration didn’t manage to finalize updates to cigarette warning labels until last year. Lawsuits held up the process, but it appears cigarette boxes may finally begin to include information educating the public on the health impacts that can result from smoking by 2022. Among them? Bladder cancer, neck cancer, limb loss, and type 2 diabetes.


We’ve known for decades that smoking cigarettes is damaging to the human body, but the government has mostly failed to adequately display those health risks where consumers may need them the most: on the boxes they come in. This long journey of cigarette warning labels may be indicative of what we should expect with these gas pump labels should they go national one day. Sure, the fossil fuel sector will likely respond with lawsuits, but these labels will likely go through their own evolution. Or, at least, they should; one ambiguous sentence stamped onto a bright yellow sticker won’t be enough to stop people from driving.


“My first impression is it’s something,” says Ellen Peters, director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication who has studied the science of science communication. “And we need to do something.”


While this warning label in Cambridge is a solid first step, cities need to do more. For one, the label itself should include more information on what climate change may actually look like locally to help individuals draw the link between this crisis and their own lives. It should also include some actionable information on what they should do, instead, says Peters. If we want people to stop driving cars, what’s the alternative? Directing Cambridge residents to information on public transit or bicycling routes would be a worthwhile addition.

These photos, courtesy of the city of Cambridge, show what these warning labels look like at actual pumps in the city today.

Ultimately, we need more research on whether these types of labels even work—and, if not, what does? Will drivers in Cambridge drive less as a result? Will they abandon driving altogether? Or will these labels backfire and contribute to a feeling of helplessness? While Gianetti didn’t answer questions on whether Cambridge will be researching the effectiveness of this campaign, he did say this:


“The City of Cambridge is working hard with our community to fight climate change. Since burning fossil fuels to power our automobiles is a big part of the cause, we know that we have to convert to less polluting transportation and replace gasoline and diesel with renewable energy. The gas pump stickers will remind drivers to think about climate change and hopefully consider non-polluting options.”


The truth is: People won’t abandon their cars simply because they’re told gas contributes to climate change. We already know that. They’ll need reliable replacements to their polluting machines—like bike routes, effective public transit, or safer sidewalks. Electric vehicles have a role to play, too, but we ultimately need to dedicate less space to passenger vehicles in a world where populations are only set to grow.


Decarbonizing the transportation sector will require cities to make trains and buses appealing to the wealthy while maintaining its accessibility to the poor and working class. Until then, people will keep driving. What other choice do they have?


Correction, Jan. 5, 2021, 11:45 am ET: Ellen Peters was previously misidentified in the story as the chair of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Her correct title has been updated in the piece.

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