Local environmentalist advocates warning labels for climate change

Rob Shirkey is campaigning municipal governments across Canada to put labels on gas pumps to remind consumers of the dangers of global warming.

Rob Shirkey is campaigning municipal governments across Canada to put labels on gas pumps to remind consumers of the dangers of global warming.

This article appeared in Good News Toronto.

Toronto environmentalist Rob Shirkey wants to reinforce a message to drivers about the dangers of fossil fuels, and he wants that message to face them every time they fill up their gas tanks.

Rob’s non-profit organization, Our Horizon, is campaigning municipal governments across Canada to require gasoline retailers to display warning labels on gas pumps that state that demand for fuel products “may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems,” “cause drought and famine” and “put up to 30 percent of species at likely risk of extinction.”

Would labels like these make drivers want to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels? Rob hopes so, and thinks that they could activate guilty consciences and give people a nudge to make more environmentally friendly choices, whether that means buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, choosing to take public transit, cycling or petitioning governments and industry for environmental initiatives.

To get the word out, he’s exhibiting prototype labels and explaining the ideas behind them in various venues around Toronto. He has a talk scheduled on April 4th at CSI Annex on 720 Bathurst Street, and will have a booth at the Green Living Show from April 12th to 14th. The labels, created by local designer Jay Wall, are inspired by health warning labels on cigarette packages. He says the response to them so far has been encouraging.

That’s important for Rob, whose environmental activism was put on the back burner for some time. Before founding Our Horizon, he was running a private law practice and his workload prevented him from pursuing his environmental initiatives. Last spring, he spoke over the phone to his grandfather in Saskatchewan,who sensed Rob wasn’t happy.

“It’s important to do what you love,” his grandfather told him. “You have to enjoy your work.”

The thought lingered with him. “Here’s a guy who’s 95 and probably knows what he’s talking about,” Rob said. Still, he continued to work on developing his business, thinking of expanding to a different subject area. At the back of his mind, he wondered when he would find the time to do the environmental work that was important to him. It wasn’t until his grandfather passed away two weeks later that those lingering words — do what you love — motivated him to action.

His grandfather left him an inheritance and he realized he had been given the opportunity to honour their last conversation. Inspired, Rob visited Osgoode Hall that very afternoon to see if his idea was feasible: Do municipalities have the legal authority to require gasoline retailers to put a warning label on their gas pumps?

In doing that research, he had to look at the legislative environment. “There’s provincial and federal legislation that touches on it. You have to make sure that there isn’t any conflict in the legislation,” he said.

He realized that his idea could actually work through the licensing powers of municipal governments. Rob strategically chose to target municipal governments because he believes that federal and provincial governments aren’t always responsive to issues of climate change.

“It might be a little cynical, but I think it’s true. When you get to senior levels of government — at the provincial and federal level — there are a variety of interests at play, especially when you get to the party system. A politician looking at a policy proposal has to think: ‘What would our supporters and funders think about this?’ Ideal solutions often get watered down because of other interests,” he explained.

“Some municipalities in Canada are quite small, maybe with three to seven councillors,” Rob continued. “They might have funded their own campaigns, used a couple of thousand dollars and gotten their friends and family to knock on doors for them. In these kinds of communities, they’re not really beholden to the same set of interests. Particularly in medium- to small-sized municipalities you won’t find career politicians with $100,000 salaries linked to their jobs who are concerned about making a controversial decision.”

Rob sees potential for innovative things happening at the municipal level. “A town might do something brand new, and a neighboring community might find it interesting and replicate it, and so on and so on. Sometimes you’ll see the province step in and create a uniform regime. It’s really a bottom-up, grassroots approach.”

Rob is looking forward to Our Horizon’s future. So far, his idea has won near unanimous support from the City Youth Council, and he hopes to replicate those results at the city council committee. The organization is now a member of the Centre for Social Innovation, a community for social entrepreneurs. He’s also on a wait list for office space there, looking to move from his current office at King and Parliament, and is seeking further funding to carry his idea forward.

Action items:

  • Consider reducing your consumption of fossil fuels by walking, cycling, taking public transit or driving a more efficient vehicle.
  • Visit Our Horizon’s website at www.ourhorizon.org.
  • Reflect on what you can do for your environment in anticipation of Earth Day on April 22.