Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the tag “Consumer carbon education”

How the Charger Can Beat the Nozzle

charger v nozzleLast year, Americans consumed 385 million gallons of gasoline a day, more than in 2014.   Despite the broader selection of good electric cars, U.S. sales of electric cars declined from 2014 to 2015 to less than 0.6% of total cars sold, while sales of gas-powered cars and SUVs set records.  President Obama’s 2011 goal of 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 fell short by more than 600,000 vehicles.

As long as there is strong consumer demand for gasoline and gasoline-powered cars, oil producers and gasoline refiners will continue drilling for oil and refining gasoline and enjoying consistent profits and popular support while doing so.

By contrast, sustained and consistent reduction in the demand for gasoline will eventually cause oil production and gasoline refining operations to grind to a halt, regardless of what Congress or Shell Oil decide.

How can a major reduction in consumer demand for gasoline be brought about? Read more…


Interview with James Turner, Communications Head of Greenpeace

I interviewed James Turner, Communications Chief for Greenpeace about how consumer consumption patterns can be changed, and role of major environmental organizations such as Greenpeace in promoting that change.  MM

james turner photo

 What is the way forward in moving consumers to curtail their gasoline usage?

JT: Greenpeace doesn’t work on the consumer side in terms of trying to change personal behaviour. You know, we sort of suggest things that people can do if they’re looking to reduce that footprint, but our attitude is very much, the most effective thing you can do is to lobby your Congressman or woman in order to change the legislation, to change the top-down measures that could, for example, increase engine efficiency or increase the use of public transport or cycling in urban centres.

So that’s very much where our focus is right now. I think that historically there has been some hesitation or some fear, I suppose, about talking directly to people (I prefer to use the word “people,” rather than “consumers”) about their personal choices and personal behaviour – fear of being seen as lecturing them or preaching at them.

Personally, I feel as if the time has come for a grown up, adult conversation with our supporters and with other members of the public, which looks at that construct actually of the idea of the consumer and starts a conversation about how we construct our identity and our measure of success in the modern world. And I do think it’s time for a new conversation where that becomes replaced with how happy you are, how much time you spend with your family, and how healthy you feel.

MM.   Can you just give me a little bit of history on the origins of that original decision to avoid talking to consumers about lifestyle? Where did that decision come from and how long has it been in place for?

JT.  I’m not sure there was ever a specific decision on that. Greenpeace’s modus operandi since the early 70s is to look at very iconic examples of environmental harm and then lobby the decision makers and the power brokers to fix them or to introduce, for example, a ban on nuclear waste dumping at sea, which was a huge environmental crime that was occurring in the 1970s, and so we’ve continued with that kind of strategy.

The other thing to remember is, we are a relatively small organization. We don’t have the advertising budgets of a government or a large corporation, and so our ability to reach large numbers of people is quite limited, and I think we feel as if it is the best strategic use of our resources to try to effect these top-level decisions which can have a large effect over huge numbers of people.   Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s we relied almost entirely on traditional media and broadcast media, and news media in particular, which is not a good format for behaviour change messages. You know, they are looking for a cause, a decision maker, a conflict, and that doesn’t fit well with an address to the public at large.

So, I think it’s a combination of our resources, our size, but also the way in which we have campaigned historically that’s led us to this point.

I do wonder if we were to work on behaviour change if we would be able to measure success and progress in such a distinct way, and I wonder whether or not that’s one of the reasons behind this – that if you’re trying to essentially change behaviour, but also culture, really, public opinion, that can be very hard to measure; it can also be very, very slow. It can take 5/ 10/ 20 years. Sometimes our planning cycles and the way we measure success needs something a little bit more quickly than that.

MM:  At what point do you think conditions are right for more of a mainstream push towards consumers on behavior change? What needs to be in place or what needs to happen for that to really start to work and be effective?

JT:   Well, I think one of those things has already happened, and one of those things that I’m thinking of is the move from traditional media, the very high concentration of power and influence amongst a relatively small number of media outlets being really collapsed by the arrival of social media, social sharing, peer-to-peer sharing, and I think that now gives us an advantage or a leg up against the large corporations and the large channels of yesteryear. So that part has already happened.

The second thing that I can think of is actually whether or not a Sierra Club or a Greenpeace is the right organization to be doing this, and the reason I say that, certainly in the US and this is true in the UK as well, is that the environment has become a highly politicized issue and those groups are seen as on the left. Now, whether or not that’s correct or not, environmental action and the groups who campaign on it are seen very much on the sort of far left on the spectrum.

So, for one of those groups to be the messenger for any kind of message on personal behaviour change, I think we get very polarized very quickly and you might see some quite vitriolic attacks from, you know, the GOP and potentially from their supporters in the country. So, what I think needs to happen is for perhaps a new, less politicized organization to emerge which is based on some, you know, universal tenets: things like the fact that spending time in our community and with our family is, you know, makes us happy and makes us more fulfilled.

Things like – I know, this may sound slightly heretical – the idea of owning less stuff, or buying less stuff as a root to wellbeing, you know, that is not by nature a political statement, but I mean, it would be seen as highly controversial for Greenpeace to say that at this time.

So, maybe it is, you know, about spinoffs of these organizations or entirely new organizations emerging to say these things, but I also think they would then require funding, they would require donations, and it’s interesting to think about how they could get the visibility and the news, sort of, profile of a Greenpeace or or a Sierra Club if they are working in this new space.

MM: It was a very strong campaign against Shell and there was even action at gas stations, but you didn’t quite take it to the point of “Don’t buy.” It didn’t quite make it there.

JT: I think consumers want to take action, they want to do things, but I think sometimes the environmental groups are in quite a difficult position with regards to what you can actually have people do, and that the received wisdom on boycotts is that it needs to be huge in order to have any direct financial impact, and that, in fact, if your boycott is ineffective, or if it goes on a long time and not many people engage with it, then it actually make you look weaker to the oil company. So, that’s some of the qualifications we have for that.

One of the big challenges I think we face is to not sell this as a sacrifice or as a thing to do on behalf of others, but to actually make the benefits of this more visible and attach prestige and status to these behaviors in the same way that we have around driving fast cars.  I do see examples of that happening in California, in Los Angeles, where a lot of cultural thought leaders and artists and creative people are starting to leave these different behaviours, but I think it will take some time to trickle down and I think it needs to be accelerated massively and I think that there is a role for art and culture to do that, but I also think there is a role for the creative industry in terms of advertising and marketing.

Advertising traditionally worked by making behaviors or choices seem attractive and desirable, whereas campaigning normally works by making people feel worried and gloomy and depressed. And it’s very interesting that certainly the campaigning organizations, the charities don’t seem to learn an awful lot from advertising, even though it’s clearly the most effective form of communication out there, and I think they should learn some of those tricks and that the consequences of that in selling the solution, selling the alternatives rather than kind of carping on about the problem so much, but again, that’s very difficult for an organization like Greenpeace to do.

It is very possible to think of an ad where fossil fuels are denigrated and seen as socially unacceptable, but which big advertising agencies take on that brief when its other clients are Ford and GM? So, you know, there’s an awful lot of vested interest and money on the other side.


gasoline pumpThe timely transition away from fossil fuel-powered transportation in U.S. will not happen as a result of government edict, high taxes, high fuel prices, or running out of oil.  As long as the vast majority of consumers use gasoline and the oil companies retain their financial grip on Congress and state legislatures, high gasoline taxes and gasoline bans will remain pipe dreams.   New oil extraction technologies, vast proven oil reserves, and regular discoveries of new oil fields virtually assure that cheap oil will be with us for decades.

Rather, the transition to clean transportation will occur because consumers reject gasoline-powered cars in favor of electric cars.  Some of the motivation to reject gasoline cars will be driven by price and cost—long-range electric cars will soon attain price parity with gasoline-powered cars, and electricity is already considerably cheaper than gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis.  Most of the motivation for rejecting gas cars will be lifestyle-driven—mainstream consumers will come to see gasoline use as an unnecessary, dirty, anti-social act, and will prefer the “clean” feeling associated with driving an electric car.

America’s 300,000+ electric car owners are key leaders in the transition away from gasoline to electric cars.  We have first-hand experience with electric car technology, with charging, and have been leading advocates for building out the charging-station network.  Electric car owners already have strong associations and social media networks where we share information and collaborate on policy. We have proven our commitment to a cleaner environment by “putting our money where our mouth is” and buying electric.

Electric car owners should not be satisfied solely with reduction or elimination of our own car’s pollution, and in increasing the convenience of charging an electric car, although these are very important goals.  We also need to become leaders in convincing our family, friends, co-workers, and company fleet managers to reject gasoline.

Now that electric cars are comparable to gas cars in terms of cost and convenience, the use of gasoline has become a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity.  As such, it is possible to convince fellow consumers make the shift away from gasoline.  The critical moment to push our family and friends to buy electric is when they are buying a new car.  We need to educate those considering buying cars about the pros and cons of the wide range of different electric and plug-in hybrid models, and encourage them to test drive or buy the models that best fit their needs and lifestyles.  There is a good plug-in model for just about every lifestyle and budget.  Car purchasers need to understand that the average gas-powered car will spew about 24,000 pounds of CO2 annually for each the next 10-15 years, and that they will soon start to feel embarrassment and guilt every time they go to the gas station or even drive their car.

We must be bold and proud about the benefits of clean electric living, and clear about the severe health and environmental effects of the widespread use of gasoline.  We need to spread the word that each gallon of gasoline used spews 20 lbs. of CO2 into the air, along with a toxic stew of known carcinogens and asthma triggers such as 1,3 butadiene, benzene, and tolulene.    We must spread the ethic of “owning your smoke,” the idea that the exhaust that comes out of the back of one’s car is the responsibility of the owner of that car, and not the responsibility of society at large (and our children) to deal with.

We also need to make our electric cars as carbon-free as possible, using solar panels on our roofs whenever possible to power them, thereby providing a ready answer to those who spout the old canard that “an electric-powered car is really a coal-powered car.”

Electric car owners are the key leaders in the budding consumer movement against gasoline.   We should be loud and proud about our commitment to avoiding gasoline, and diligent in pushing our friends and family to abandon it as well.  As our numbers grow, we will achieve a critical mass which will allow for more economies of scale in electric car production, more investment in the charging network, and more social pressure away from gasoline.

Our planet, and our children and grandchildren, need us to lead the movement away from gasoline, one consumer at a time.

Did Pope Francis Call for a Gasoline Boycott?

Pope_Francis_at_VargihnaMuch of the media attention on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical focused on its recognition of the causes of global warning and the impact that the Pope might have on international and domestic climate politics,    Less publicized, but possibly more impactful in the long term, is the Pope’s call to consumers to wield their purchasing power as a force for change.

Pope Francis writes:

“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. ‘Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.’ Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.” (Laudato Si, Para. 206)

The education and mobilization of consumers to reduce their carbon purchases has barely begun.   The vast majority of consumers have no idea how much CO2 they emit, nor any sense of moral responsibility to reduce their CO2 emissions, other than perhaps owning a car that gets more than 20 mpg.   Lack of leadership has been a principal driver of consumer apathy.   Until the Pope spoke out, there have been virtually no high-profile persons or organizations calling on citizens to examine their lifestyles and to curtail their carbon purchases. Read more…

Interview with Rob Shirkey, Proponent of Gas Pump Warning Labels


Rob Shirkey

In my last post, I discussed a new initiative from Canada to mandate the inclusion of warning labels on gas pumps.  Today, I interview the guiding force behind the campaign, Robert Shirkey, Executive Director of Toronto-based Our Horizon.  The text below is a summary of our interview, not a transcript.

Q.  How do  you assess  consumer consciousness regarding gasoline?

A.   The act of pumping gas is normalized, habitual, and automatic. We scarcely even think about gasoline, and have complacent about using it.  We need to bring the conversation about gasoline and carbon reduction closer to the end user.

To the extent we think about the global warming problem, we tend to think of it as a problem caused by industry, not by ourselves.

The goal of the sticker campaign is to shake up the complacency with which we view gasoline and create demand for alternatives.

While our goal is not to create guilt, if the end user does feel guilt, that helps establish conditions where change comes from.  Change comes from dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Q.    Are there sufficiently viable alternatives to gasoline right now?  Is it fair to ask people not to use gasoline before there are viable alternatives?

“If you make them want it, then you get to build it, then they will come.” If we keep on buying the old internal combustion engine, then it will take longer for better alternative vehicles to come to market. If you can signal to a producer broader market interest, you are signaling to them an opportunity to produce at greater economies of scale.

The sticker will create a thirst for better alternatives.  You make people want it first.

As long as consumers are complacent, we will not get the alternatives we want.  Complacency doesn’t drive change.  Consumers’ distance from the global warming problem perpetuates the status quo.  If consumers become dissatisfied with the status quo, they will demand better alternatives.

Q. Why have the mainstream environmental organizations not asked their membership more directly not to drive gasoline-powered cars?

A.  There is an ideological blindspot, a disconnect.The narrative popular with many activists is that there are big, bad evil corporations responsible for global warming.

If there is a narrative that we are all conflicted, that we are all part of the problem, it is harder to go to a protest and shake your fist.  The real enemy is inertia and the status quo in which consumers are comfortable using gasoline.

Sure, there are some bad apples in the petroleum industry, but our challenge is systemic inertia, not cartoonish big, bad corporations.  This narrative is more complex, but more honest.  I think it will be more effective.

Q. Where do things stand with labeling in San Francisco and Berkeley?  What do you think will be the first jurisdiction in the world to actually adopt the warning label requirement into law?

A.  There is a group in San Francisco and Berkeley that I have been advising.They haven’t yet implemented a labeling law yet, but they are at the tail end of the legislative process, and we are looking at another month or two before it is complete.  In West Vancouver, they recently passed a resolution in favor of climate change stickers on all gas pumps throughout Canada.

Many jurisdictions are reluctant to mandate the use of stickers now because of the threat of litigation.  No one municipality has as of yet been willing to be first, but I believe a number will be willing once the law is decided that municipalities do have jurisdiction to require warning labels.

In West Vancouver, the mayor was formerly a petroleum distributor, and he has said that he will voluntarily put the warning stickers on the gas pumps he owns.  Some consumers might want to support gas stations that voluntarily use the stickers.  Voluntary placement of stickers could be a big growth area for the sticker movement.

Q.  Is the time right for a gasoline boycott or similar coordinated withdrawal of gasoline purchasing?  When will the time be right? How could it be achieved?

A. I wouldn’t go the boycott route. But it would introduce another perspective and be an interesting downstream intervention.  We need to look at where fossil fuels companies get their revenue, which is from markets.  The only reason that pipelines, tar sands, and oil drilling occur is because there is a market for the product.  If we take away the market, all of these problems will disappear.

Gas Pump Warning Labels Push Consumers to Reject Gasoline


Our Horizon, a Toronto-based environmental group led by Rob Shirkey, is campaigning throughout Canada and the U.S. to enact laws requiring warning labels on gas pumps which inform consumers about the environmental consequences of using gasoline.   The campaign is gaining traction.  Berkeley and San Francisco governments have given preliminary approval to the idea and are in the process of drafting the warning label regulations.  The City of West Vancouver recently passed a resolution favoring the warning labels.

In a stirring TEDx talk and on the website, Shirkey argues that the labels confront the consumer with the severe yet distant impacts of climate change, thereby counteracting the total lack of feedback between the use of carbon and its consequences.  Labelhigh-Oceans-300x300He also says that the warning labels “take a problem [climate change] of diffuse origins and locate responsibility right in the palm of your hand.”

Shirkey argues strongly for the gasoline consumer’s central role in combating climate change:

“We may worry about climate change, oil sands, pipelines, etc., but we rarely question the simple act of pumping gas. There is a complete disconnect. The act of going to a gas station and filling up a car has been normalized for several generations. The warning labels take this unexamined, automatic act and problematize it. In creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing mobility solution, they stimulate demand for alternatives. The labels disrupt the status quo, shake us out of our sense of complacency, and provide impetus for us to do better. label-low_4-300x300They are a catalyst for change.

Discourse around climate change in Canada tends to overlook end-use in favour of focusing on oil companies, points of extraction (e.g. oil sands, offshore drilling) or means of transportation (e.g. pipelines, shipping). Unfortunately, the uncomfortable reality is that we all share in responsibility for this problem.   Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gases come from end-use; emissions from extraction and processing pale in comparison to emissions from vehicle combustion.

[W]hile a diversity of approaches is important, there is a risk that in framing the [CO2 pollution]  issue as an exclusively upstream problem, we actually distance ourselves from it and perhaps unintentionally perpetuate the status quo through demand-side complacency. A complacent, disconnected marketplace is unlikely to affect change upstream; engaging consumer demand can help us to finally address these issues in a more meaningful way.” (p.17)

The labeling campaign has attracted vigorous opposition. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil-industry lobbying group, said the plan imposes “onerous restrictions” on businesses and “compels speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”   A Berkeley councilmember said that the labeling ordinance is a “feel-good measure” that would “increase people’s guilt without giving them useful action.”

As electric cars and other transportation solutions become increasingly viable, consumer perceptions of gasoline will play a key role in determining the longevity of gasoline as the world’s dominant transportation fuel.  By graphically and repetitively reminding gasoline consumers of the environmental damage that gasoline use causes, gas pump warning labels can help shift consumer demand to other fuels and technologies and speed up gasoline’s demise.


gas nooseOil companies’ share prices tumbling.  Fracking and oil exploration projects cancelled.   Environmentalist dreams? No, these are today’s headlines caused by falling oil prices.

But what about the demand side?  Will low gas prices cause consumers to use more gas and emit more carbon?    While the supply-and-demand curves of economics textbooks and some survey evidence suggest that they will, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that gasoline demand and usage must increase if gas prices remain low.  For example, bus ridership in King County, Washington is up, despite service cuts and gas prices well below last year’s. Nissan Leaf sales in December 2014 were up nearly 20% over a year earlier.

A fundamental challenge for climate activists is to find a way to continually depress gasoline demand in the face of low prices.   Reducing gasoline demand in a low-price environment represents a different challenge from the one climate activists thought they would be fighting.  For most of the past decade, high carbon prices caused by carbon taxes and/or “peak oil” were viewed as the key motivators for consumers to embrace renewable fuels.  Now, with gas prices around $2 a gallon, carbon taxes politically infeasible, and vast new supplies of fracked oil depressing prices, a new non-price-based strategy is required.

Price is only one of many motivators of consumer decisions. For example, Apple smartphones are both the most costly and the best-selling phones in the market, because Apple’s products represent the person that many of us want to be and the lifestyle we want to have—clean, elegant, and powerful.

The same logic can be brought to bear with respect to gasoline cars and gasoline usage.

As evidence of global warming becomes more pervasive, the use of gasoline becomes more morally questionable and undesirable.   Pope Francis recently said that “man has slapped nature in the face” by causing climate change.  If Francis’ statement can somehow be personalized and internalized—such that we feel each of us are personally giving an unkind “slap in the face” to nature when we buy gasoline-powered cars and use gasoline, then consumers will embrace alternatives.  If climate activists do our job well, the clean, elegant, and powerful person will not want a gas-powered car or to be seen pumping gas.

Translating the moral argument into a consumer argument against the purchase of gasoline-powered cars and gasoline is feasible, but it will require a different moral approach and vocabulary than we presently use.   We need to move away from an analysis of the relative costs of conventional versus green technologies, and instead emphasize an approach to consumer choice based on our personal values.

While a values-based argument to consumers relating to energy choices must be made with subtlety and care, it must nonetheless be made, even if consumer and industry sensibilities are ruffled.  Unnecessary burning of carbon is, as the Pope says, a slap against nature, and such violence should not be condoned or ignored.  This is particularly so as new technologies, such as the long-range electric car, become widely available over the next several years, making the unnecessary burning of carbon all the more indefensible.

There are many forms that a values-based consumer-oriented campaign against gasoline can take.   One nice example is an emerging campaign to put climate-warning stickers on gas pumps.  Messages against gasoline purchase can be spread through social media, places of worship, and ballot measures.  Theater and other arts can undermine our deep psychological dependence on oil.   The main thrust of these campaigns is to confront consumers and convince them that filling their gas tank is antithetical to their own values and unnecessary.

Low gasoline prices are in many respects a consequence of our success in limiting demand for oil. The more success we have in limiting energy demand, the lower we should expect those prices to go.    We need to find new pathways to the consumer’s sense of self and values, and then work with those values to power the transition away from fossil fuels.

Imaging CO2: An interview with laser imager Vic Miller

laser car imaging

No one has yet captured an image of the CO2 spewing from car tailpipes.  As discussed in my last post, such video images could revolutionize how we think about the copious carbon pollution (20 lbs. of CO2/gallon) we emit when we drive.

To better understand how and when we might expect to get images of CO2 tailpipe emissions, I interviewed Vic Miller, an engineering post-doc at Stanford University, and an expert in laser imaging of gases. Vic is working on a technique to image CO2 from a tailpipe (among other projects).  His team’s laser-enhanced video of a match strike was recently featured in the New York Times.

Vic Miller

Vic Miller

Q. Why has CO2 imaging been so elusive?  What are the principal technical obstacles?

A.   CO2 is an infrared active molecule, meaning it absorbs (and emits) light in the infrared (IR).  And so I’m pretty sure qualitative measurements or images of CO2 emissions can be made with currently available off-the-shelf infrared cameras that are sensitive in the mid-infrared.  The tricky part is being quantitative – or getting an actual measurement of CO2 concentration with well-characterized uncertainty bounds.  This is what the NASA OCO-2 satellite does – it’s a quantitate instrument for measuring CO2 concentration.  The challenges lie in CO2 spectroscopy (i.e., understanding how CO2 absorbs light in the infrared, and what other species also absorb in the infrared and how they could interfere with CO2 spectroscopy) – and there are engineering challenges with making good measurements (is the signal on your detector actually what you think it is?).

Q.  What are the promising new techniques/technology for imaging?

A.  New infrared light sources (e.g., lasers) and infrared detectors are constantly being improved – these new pieces will provide access to better wavelengths (i.e., wavelengths that provide a more sensitive measurement with less interference) for CO2 detection.

Q.  Is it possible to measure it with non-visual means to model how CO2 would move out of a tailpipe?

A.  CO2 measurements can be made relatively cheaply with a capnograph.  CO2 measurements are readily made in medicine to monitor patients’ respiratory health (and other conditions) – the same thing could be done near a tailpipe. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) could be used to model and observe tailpipe emissions.

Q. When do you think the new imaging techniques might be ready for providing car tailpipe images?

A.  We might be able to have a short little paper out in maybe a year – would like to do it in 6 months, but we probably won’t finish it that quickly.

CO2 Imaging Key to Changing Consciousness

CO2 Black Bag behind car croppedIf CO2 came out of the tailpipe dark and smelly, strict controls on emitting it would probably have been in effect long ago.  Instead, CO2 is invisible and odorless.  We exhale it with every breath.   Most of us are unaware that our cars spew vast quantities of it.

In a society in which visual image is paramount, how can we show people the vast quantities of CO2 comes out of their tailpipe?  How can the invisible be made visible?

Much of the effort to visualize carbon has been at the macro scale, showing computer models of CO2 emissions at the planetary and state level.  NASA recently released a video modeling CO2 as it swirls through the planetary atmosphere.

NASA Carbon Planet Cropped

Red on map shows high concentration of CO2

Blue Carbon Balls Cropped

Carbon visual’s image of one metric ton of CO2.

Others have also created simple, powerful visual models of CO2 pollution.Carbon visuals, a UK company specializing in producing images and videos of CO2 emissions, uses giant blue balls to show the actual volumes of CO2 being emitted by  automobiles.  The blue ball in the photo represents 1 metric  ton of CO2, or the volume produced by the average US driver in about 2 months of driving.   New York City produces 54,000,000 balls in a year.

All of the above images are models, not actual visual images of CO2.   Imaging CO2 has been extremely difficult because of the properties of CO2’s  electronic transitions.  Researchers are presently working on using lasers in the infrared spectrum to excite CO2 molecules so that they can be imaged.

The successful imaging of CO2 spewing from a tailpipe could lead to an important breakthrough in human understanding and consciousness, similar to the breakthroughs resulting from the first film of a horse running or the first images of Earth from the moon.

The representation of CO2 need not be left only to scientists.   Visual artists, actors, and poets can make the invisible visible, the unreal real, and the unimportant urgent.

Our ability to reduce CO2 emissions rests largely on our grasp of our personal role in the CO2 crisis, and our resolve to minimize our contribution to the problem.  Our grasp and our resolve depend in large part upon our ability to see and communicate visually the CO2 we and others emit.


lego shell

The gas station is the oil companies’ tentacle into the cars and pocketbooks of consumers.  Located at prominent street corners in nearly every neighborhood in the developed world, gas stations proudly carry the flag of Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil giants into our communities.   The gas station would therefore appear to be an ideal stage for educating consumers about carbon pollution and its role in fomenting climate change, and for generating friction in the normally smooth transfer of carbon from the oil company to the gasoline consumer.

Despite their potential for education and advocacy, gas stations have rarely been utilized as a platform for protest, advocacy, or carbon education. Rather, with rare exception, they function quietly and efficiently as the oil companies’ community-based carbon spigot, their latent political, economic, and social significance cloaked by the numbing routine of pumping gas.

Since the oil price shocks of the 1970s, most gas stations protests have been about the price of gasoline, most recently with the price spikes of 2008 and 2011.

Recent protests have focused more narrowly on oil company malfeasance.  On Earth Day 2010, activists in Oakland protested at a Valero station in connection with the company’s opposition to climate legislation.  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout caused a brief flurry of protests against BP across the country.

In 2014, the pace and variety of gas station protests increased.   In January, protesters in Manchester, England demonstrated against fracking outside a Total station.  In August, 2014 a small group secretly disabled pumps at two Chevron stations in Vancouver, BC protesting Chevron’s actions in Ecuador and the construction of a nearby Chevron oil pipeline.

Greenpeace organized demonstrations at Shell stations in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile in August 2014 in connection with Shell’s Arctic drilling.  These protests, coordinated with an effective video mocking Shell’s actions in the Arctic, leveraged Lego’s product tie-in with Shell to create strong visuals and international news about the protest, and ultimately caused Lego to cancel its 50-year relationship with Shell.

Gas station protests draw substantial media coverage because of gas stations’ political and economic importance in the community.  Their ubiquity and prominence render them an ideal platform for climate advocacy and protest.  Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to picketing of abortion clinics provide robust rights to sidewalk protesters.

Coordinated, consistent, fun, well-organized, and friendly actions at gas stations could effectively challenge a broadly-accepted yet ultimately untenable aspect of American life—filling one’s gas tank at the local gas station.  They would likely attract significant media attention, put the oil companies on the defensive, and help generate vigorous debate about personal and corporate responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.

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