More than a Drop in the Bucket

By: John A. Lanier

As this bucket fills, it shows humanity “using up” its carbon budget. What struck me most is how fast the rate of change has accelerated in the last few decades.

You’d think that it would be difficult to make a bucket cool. It’s as basic as a household item comes. A bucket is generally a boring solid color, made of a simple material with only a handle to spice it up, all with the sole purpose of merely holding stuff. In a ranked hierarchy of cool household items, I bet most of us would slot the bucket after the screwdriver, stepstool, air filter, and cutting board.

Yet allow me to explain why your dismissive prejudice of the humble bucket is flat out wrong. Buckets ARE cool, and as evidence I give you three examples.

Exhibit A – The Ice Bucket Challenge

Ah, the power of virality on the internet. First, let’s start with the fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge was created to fundraise research dollars for a cure to ALS. Trying to find a cure to ALS is super-cool. Second, the bucket helped get millions of people to dump ice water on their heads, which I’m still tickled by today. Third, just having ice water in those buckets made them cool…literally.

Exhibit B – That Guy Outside a Sporting Event Who is Playing an Upside-Down Bucket as a Musical Instrument While Panhandling for Money

You know the guy I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, the folks panhandling with a guitar or saxophone or bagpipes are cool too, but bucket-guy outdoes them all. I’ve heard some really catchy and surprisingly complex rhythms come from smacking a bucket or two with some drumsticks. Get three or four bucket-guys playing together in a bucket-brigade and the coolness factor skyrockets.

Exhibit C – This Carbon Budget Graphic

This is one of the coolest climate change graphics I’ve ever seen. It’s not particularly good news on the climate front, but I think its creators have managed to pack a lot of important information into a simple and intuitive bucket-graphic. Let’s unpack it just a bit.

First, a reminder on what a carbon budget is. Climate scientists have determined how average global temperatures vary over time as a result of changes to the concentrations of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. As a result, they can estimate how many gigatons of carbon emissions can be added to the atmosphere to cause a 1.5°C increase in global temperature from pre-industrial levels. If we want to stay below that much warming, we can’t put more carbon into the atmosphere than that amount. (Note – there are similar carbon budgets for 2.0°C of warming, and 2.5°C, and so on.)

As this bucket fills, it shows humanity “using up” that carbon budget by emitting those gigatons of carbon emissions. What struck me most is how fast the rate of change has accelerated in the last few decades. In 1986, the year I was born, humanity had used up only about 40% of this carbon budget, and it had taken more than 100 years to get to that point. In the 33 subsequent years, that amount and more was used up, bringing us to only 9% of our budget left.I was also struck by the carbon contributions per country and region. Often in the climate space, you’ll hear blame cast on China or India or the United States for the problem that we are in. As this graphic shows though, it’s one carbon budget that we are all using up.

More importantly, when it comes to reversing global warming, it really will take all of us – we’re all in this bucket together.