A year of climate change news in 400 words

Over the past year or so I have been keeping abreast of the latest social, political, technological and scientific news on climate change.  I’ve not been sharing every last detail on my blog, so here is a whistle-stop tour of all you need to know.  To make my job a whole lot easier, Al Gore has just written an article in Rolling Stone magazine on the same subject.

So, here goes:

Solar power is getting much cheaper, and looks set to become cheaper than fossil fuels.  Utility companies are shrinking from the US to Europe as a result.  It’s small-scale solar owned by individuals and communities that’s leading the way.  India plans to provide power for 400 million people using the sun.  Wind energy is following fast.

Big business is fighting back, investing millions in lobbying to effect law that holds back the renewable revolution by increasing taxes, but are being largely defeated.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million, the highest it’s for at least 800,000 years, where we started farming only about 10,000 years ago.  13 of the 14 hottest years on record have been since the year 2000.

This year looks likely to be the hottest yet, with an El Nino brewing.  People worldwide are starting to realise that there is a common cause behind the droughts of the US, floods and storms in the UK, Serbia, Philippines and New York, seas rising and already threatening the lower lying lands.

Ice is retreating at more than a glacial rate everywhere from Antarctica and Greenland to the Arctic.  The changes are already irreversible.

The US military have changed their mind about climate change being the most significant force in destabilising world peace because of it being a “multiplier”.  They now say “it’s going to be the direct cause of instability”.
The technology is available, and the political will needs to follow.  The wording for the Paris 2015 agreement on climate change is being drafted as I type.

In one of my first blog posts, I compared climate change to the forces of Germany building before the second world war.  I suggested that Churchill didn’t try to persuade us to build spitfires based on an economic argument.  It turns out that the comparison was more apt than I realised.  In November 1936, he said in parliament: “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. . . . The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. . . . We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke



There was a moment’s peace, with the faint murmurings of the dishwasher in the next room only disturbed by the all knowing pronouncements of Mark Lawrenson in comment on the football World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands.  The children were all in bed, but weren’t quite ready to sleep.

Rowan came downstairs after persuading them to close their eyes, and started to tidy the piles of toys left on the living room floor.  John felt a vague momentary feeling of guilt as he sat and watched, in front of his laptop.

The past few days had been busy and long, with head hitting pillow in the early hours each night.  No contracts had been signed, but there was a lot of work to persuade the railwaymen of Britain to adopt new approaches.  He had to be honest with himself, it wasn’t all slog.  Two of the late nights had involved a spot of food out in London, meeting with friends and colleagues, intent on turning the oil tanker of human society against the drag of willful ignorance about the need to change the way works.

Van Persie scored a wonder goal with a looping header to level the match for the Netherlands.  Holland.  They were playing in Brazil, which is a hot and humid part of the world at the best of times.  In the south of the country, 130 cities are in a state of emergency as torrential rain and floodwater engulf the region, and tens of thousands have been evacuated.

Like a fly gorging on effluent, blissfully unaware of the massive form of the rolled up newspaper poised threateningly above it, the crowds of brightly coloured fans knew little of the trouble brewing just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.  The Child is awaking, after years of heat building up in the deep ocean.  El Nino is nearly upon us.

El NinoThe much maligned scientists, unfortunate messengers being shot with every new report, have used the technologies at the forefront of the advances of the human race, from vast super-computers to detailed intricate surveys of the extremities of the planet.  Only recently they have finished collating the data, and the news again is not good.  Their is nothing left to stop Antarctica from melting into the oceans, and Greenland is on its way.  The tipping point has passed.  Our oceans will be metres higher, and there is nothing we can now do to stop it.

Interesting times.

John Bell,

Ordinary Bloke

Unexpected twist

Life is taking an interesting and unexpected turn of late.  It all started with reading the “Optimists Tour of the Future” and meeting the author, Mark, leading me to visions of the engineered utopian or dystopian future we are accelerating exponentially towards.  Then I visited a Fab Lab, under construction, and have seen first-hand how near that future is becoming.  And how dangerously easy it would be for me to jump on that bandwagon and race off into the reddening sunset.

A Fab Lab is basically a workshop for geeks and entrepreneurs alike to get to grips with automated, small scale manufacture of gadgets and gizmos, using a variety of burgeoning technologies such as desktop laser-cutters and 3D printers.  The important part is that use of the facility is free, within limits.  There are hundreds of the blighters appearing all over the world, including potentially one being put in place by a couple of friends here in Berkhamsted.  The one I checked out was in the Enginuity museum-like-place in Ironbridge, which we visited on Tall’s birthday last week while on a break with the in-laws.  The man behind it, Phil, was very enthusiastic and willing to tell me all about it after I asked for a back-stage pass to nose around.

Fab LabBoom.  Whizz.  Bang.  Brain goes off with inspiration and ideas blasting out of every neuron, as I saw Pixar-quality free 3D design software, printed scanned busts of the staff, laser etched key fobs of photos.  I heard stories of 3D printed houses in China          , business cards with videos activated when you look at the card, and everything created by ordinary people on a shoe-string, not requiring the deep pockets of government or corporations.  Collaboration by the likes of you and me.

On the drive home the following day, fuelled by caffeine, the possibilities thrummed through my mind.  I allowed myself to get drawn further into the intoxicating science fiction come real.  With the M54 rolling past, I designed two new 3D printers, with high resolution and colour (my designs are unworkable, I’m sure – and already done for a mere £200K).  How about an online playing field for ordinary people to evolve computer brains with artificial intelligence, building on each other’s ideas and programs?  Why stop there: with the Fab Labs ordinary people can design, share and build any sort of technology, linking together different components to create larger objects.

Mind racing.  Combined with plentiful supplies of local, community owned renewable electricity and fuel generation, there would be no reliance on central facilities for power.  (That might help sort climate change.  Oh, yeah, climate change).

There would need to be some cataloguing mechanism so the latest breakthroughs are easy to find, not hidden by competitors or left on the workbench due to poor advertising.  I parked that, brain not letting me rest on any one thought before moving me on to the next.

Which was about money.  With the idea of sharing technologies and breakthroughs widely, then how would the army of inventors support themselves back in the real world?  How about some reputation system, so useful contributions are recognised?  Food.

We’d need to eat.  When’s lunch?

It was only when I let myself slow down that I started to think through the consequences.  Where would the materials come from?  Maybe centralised manufacture, while putting the power in the hands of a few, does use resources more efficiently.  Unless the resources required are readily available almost everywhere, such as carbon, air and water.  It feels as though this new world will make it more difficult for people or groups to monopolise power and influence, and level the global playing field regarding living standards.  But what about the environment?  Who would look after that?  There isn’t much nature left in science fiction, other than in distant space.

So, both the potential and the excitement and enthusiasm I felt mean that this could be the start of a story about the future that might galvanise society into a move towards renewable energy.  The question is: How to tell it and move towards it responsibly?

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

PS – this short movie shows what is possible with the free 3D software and with a collaborative, open project.  If you have 15 mins to watch it, it also has a moral message about the dangers of pursuing a goal without thought as to the consequences.

The geek shall inherit the Earth

After the third Ashlyns Conversation on Wednesday night, I can’t help but wonder whether there was some mis-translation early on when the Bible was being compiled.  “The meek shall inherit the Earth” has been an eye-catching and thought provoking phrase for me.  I’m wondering whether the “m” was a mistake and it should have been a “g”.

I’ve read Mark Stevenson’s book, and while feeling out of place in a hip pub in London Mark he did take me through his go-to slide presentation.  While there were adaptations in the talk he gave last night to what I’d read and heard before, it was largely similar.  It didn’t stop me letting out involuntary gasps of astonishment as I sat in Berkhamsted Town Hall while he rattled through his bewildering torrent slides, taking the 70 attendees through already existing technologies such as Star-Wars-like thought controlled robotic hands with sensitive touch, to reversing the aging process using telomerase; from successful competitions to find businesses that can make money by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (without government incentives), to the meteoric rise of renewable energy and algae creating petrol from carbon dioxide and water.

Optimist's Tour of the Future

After the talk I gave a lift to Jean to get her home and save her knees, and worked into the evening to prepare for a client meeting today.  A short night’s sleep later and I’m on a train to Derby, thinking.  What I heard last night changes everything for me.  And at the same time it changes nothing.

It changes everything in that I have to admit that I’m much more optimistic about the potential for us defeating climate change.  Technologies are on the way, and they will come sooner or later whether governments get on board or not.  It changes nothing in that the steps I need to take now are to orient myself in moral philosophy, and help to build and inclusive, collaborative and fair community, starting within myself and working out to my family, friends, neighbours, street and town.

I now have renewed insight and belief that the work of the Transition movement is all the more fundamentally important and pressing.  Climate change will knock us to the floor unless we reduce our individual, local, national and global carbon footprint – we need to give ourselves another decade or two to allow these technologies to come through and help repair our battered planet.  Our humanity, our understanding of our place in the universe and our moral outlook need to keep pace with the onset of the world-shifting technologies.  That can only happen if we get to know the Blaneys next door and the Yarkers across the road, talk about the important things in life and yes, dare I say it, love one another.

The world just around the corner (ooh, I like that phrase) isn’t going to wait for our lumbering political systems and unresponsive behemoths of corporations.  Either through Mother Nature showing her hand or through Fred building a self-replicating 3D nano-printer in his bedroom, government and big business are going to get caught napping.  So we need to be there to help smooth the transition and ride the wave of change rather than get swept aside.

The new insights Mark gave change everything in that the destination I now imagine looks very different from the one I had in mind, with just as much nature and collaboration, but a few more gizmos and a lot more algae.

It changes nothing in that we are still at a crossroads in the history of the human race.  Will we race unthinking into that future, use a shiny new monofilament graphite saw too cut off the branch upon which we are sitting.  Or will we allow our humanity to transcend our animal instincts for competition, to move with self-aware assuredness into a collaborative and equitable paradise.

I’ll probably aim for the paradise option, hope that most of us go the same way, and build a bolt-hole in case those that go for the fast lane try to wipe me out.

A massive thank you to Bex in particular, plus Emma, Phillipa and Ivan for organising the talk, and to Mark for delivering such a profound message to us all.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

Queasy Optimism

I’m just getting to the end of “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future”, and my brain seems to be avoiding thinking about the implications.  It’s good that I’ve nearly read the book through, because the author Mark Stevenson is coming to Berkhamsted tomorrow night to give the third Ashlyns Conversation, and I’d feel a little guilty if I’d not read his book, having invited him along.  If you feel like being emotionally and intellectually challenged and uplifted by a former stand-up comic turned saviour of the world, come to the Town Hall tomorrow night (Weds 21 May – booking in advance preferable but not necessary).

Thinking about emerging technologies and the profound effect they will have on the make-up of the world causes my stomach to turn and my heart to soar in equal measure.  Will we live for a thousand years?  Is that a good thing?  There are already too many of us – how would we organise ourselves not to take that to extremes?  Will computers become more intelligent than us, and will we join them as Terminator-style cybernetic organisms?  We’ve already started that, with our ever increasing reliance on smartphones, which are getting ever closer to being physically part of our system.

Can Cows Save the Planet?

My unconscious* threw another googly with an absurd reaction when I read the sections about climate change and the technologies out there that could solve it for us.  It’s not the rapidly reducing costs of renewable energy, including printing solar panels on film, or the farming techniques that are turning parts of the parched Australian outback verdant green without pesticides or fertilisers.

No, it’s the technologies that claim to be able to reverse the industrial revolution and suck all of the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in just a couple of decades.  Why would that make me feel uneasy?  It sounds fantastic, but is it too good to be true?  Will the potential for its existence spur us on to pollute ever more efficiently?

It seems to me that we are in a race against ourselves in a gladiatorial fight to the death.  We need to perfect these technologies on an industrial scale.  They will be mostly distributed in our communities rather than centrally, if we get our act together.  We need to do that before the climate enters an irreversible downward spiral and creates conditions that mean we are scrabbling for resources and lose the ability to save ourselves.

Or we could live a little more simply, with more time on our hands, and aim for happiness and love rather than being a cog in the Gross Domestic Product machine.


John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

* ah, cyborg again – I spelled that “unconsious”, but my extended intellect automatically corrected it for me via the spell-check on this laptop

Metal in a field

Got a bit of news.  There are a lot of people who don’t like wind turbines.  They think they don’t look very good.  Generally I don’t like man-made things hanging around in natural surroundings either.Single Wind Turbine

The difficulty for me is comparing the alternatives.  Would I prefer to see a 170 tonne lump of metal in a field for 25 years?







Wind-Turbine-Major-Wind-FarmOr would I prefer that 750 times that weight of carbon dioxide* is added invisibly to the atmosphere, where it will remain for 500 years, due to coal being burnt in a power station?





Take your pick.

John Bell,

Ordinary Bloke

* Calculation is based on a Siemens SWT-2.3-101 turbine, which has a nominal power of 2.3 MW.  I used a wind speed calculation website to calculate the average ratio between annual kWh output and nominal power, of 3208.  From that I took 1% away to represent the average actual power output compared with sales figures.  Then multiplied that by the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per kWh of energy produced by burning coal.

Conservative moratorium of onshore wind

I sent this to my MP. If you have a Conservative MP, I implore you to write to them on the same topic. My email was sent before the recent UN report that says that the current actions on climate change are only sufficient to keep temperature increases to about 4 degrees Celcius. They suggest we start now to make a speedy transition to renewables from fossil fuels, with natural gas replacing oil and coal for the next 20-30 years.

My email and David Gauke MP’s response are below:

Dear Mr Bell,
Many thanks for your email. I have made David aware of your concerns.
Kind regards,
Polly London
Office of David Gauke MP

From: John Bell <jubble@hotmail.co.uk>
To: David Gauke MP (home) <david.gauke@btinternet.com>; David Gauke MP <david@davidgauke.com>
Sent: Thursday, 10 April 2014, 14:39
Subject: Onshore wind farms

Dear David
Thank you for your time at the recent surgery in Berkhamsted.  I have to say I was bitterly disappointed when it came to the budget itself, with so many reductions to the renewable energy sector and the freezing of the carbon floor.
The future of the energy sector remains strongly in the low-carbon energy sector, which is largely renewable energy.  Shale gas is not low carbon, it is high carbon.
I have read that there is consideration to include a moratorium on onshore wind in the Conservative manifesto for the next election.  I sincerely hope that this is not the case, and urge you please to make your voice heard in opposition to any such move.  It would be very anti-market forces, and drive the UK to miss out on a fantastic opportunity to lead the way globally in this vital technology, which would supply jobs and low-cost energy for decades to come.  Onshore wind is by far the cheapest form of renewable energy out there, and is becoming competitive with fossil fuels – that is why Ecotricity have been able to freeze their electricity prices for 21 months, and expect to reduce prices going forward.
If the Conservative Party is willing to try to persuade the public on the use of unpopular shale gas, surely it can do the same for onshore wind.
I was pleased to hear that 70 global corporations, including Unilever, Shell, BT and EDF Energy, have called for governments to step up efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  I hope the Conservative Party will take note.
John Bell,
Ordinary Bloke

My part in the UK climate movement

Over the past year or so, I have met with a number of the leading lights in the UK grassroots climate movement.  We’re all part of it, we just don’t always know that we are or realise that there is a movement at all.  The Power Shift UK is aimed at bringing us all together, as part of wider strategies from other UK and international climate change organisations.

I see the movement as providing so much that it is hard not to agree that it is a hugely positive influence on life in the UK.  Thousands of groups and people around the country are working in their own way to bring community back into their neighbourhoods, where at the moment we are getting used to an insulated lifestyle that revolves around a digital display.  They are finding ways to generate electricity from the sources of energy provided to us by nature.  They are finding ways to reduce our outgoings so we can have a better standard of living.  They are preserving their local natural habitats from an increasing human population and its consequent demands on our natural world.

I am not alone in finding the work a huge drain on my time and energy, as I spend countless evening and days away from the family in meetings.  It can and does feel depressing and feed exhaustion in the face of seemingly overwhelming apathy, wilful ignorance and destructive behaviour from what seems like the majority.  The political class follow what they feel is the vote-winning majority view, and fail to see the opportunities of a change in direction or the dire consequences of our current path.

That is why I am part of Power Shift UK (3/4 May – book your place now, it’s free, and we might even pay to get you there) which is working with the Campaign against Climate Change (CCC) to unite the UK climate movement at all levels.  The strategy aligns with that of the other UK climate organisations, represented by the Climate Coalition.  It is Power Shift “UK” because there are Power Shifts happening all over the planet, from the places most affected by climate change in Africa and the island nations, to the lead culprits in Australia, the US and Canada.

Power Shift UK - 3/4 MayI have been working with Fiona and Laeti at CCC on a funding application to help support the work.  This is where we are at in describing our aims:

  • To provide concerned citizens and groups with a platform for discussion and learning around climate change issues; to build a strong foundation and diversified movement to ensure a just transition towards climate justice and action
  • To give communities and their projects the spotlight and opportunities to demonstrate that alternatives and solutions to climate change are possible; To learn from these community solutions; To invite communities to share their skills in and outside the climate movement.
  • To influence policy and key decision makers in the UK in order to provide a mandate for them to implement the example solutions and alternatives put forward by our British communities; To create space for change to protect citizens who already suffer the consequences of climate change in the UK.

Knowing we are part of a much bigger movement breeds togetherness and a positive, re-enforcing energy that helps to conquer the exhaustion.  It brings inspiration, ideas, skills and experience that strengthen what we do.  It allows people who are partially involved, or are merely at the moment observers, to give themselves permission to join the movement, be that making changes in their own lives, taking part in an event or helping with an initiative.

This groundswell will give the politicians the mandate to enact legislation and bring in policies to turn the tide and bring the rest of us along.  Critical mass will be reached and apathy and ignorance will be swept up in the river of change and what might at the moment seem like inconsequent activity will be justified.  It is that vision that keeps me going.

Will it happen?  I can only hope.

Global power shift flyer 2

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

For the love

I love walking with friends and family, or on my own, in the summer, winter, autumn and the spring.  I love a good book.  I love eating.  I love my wife.  I love my children.  For the love of all that I care for, we must get to grips with climate change.

You’re now supposed to be ripe and ready to have a conversation about what it means to tackle climate change.  The “For the love of…” campaign of the Climate Coalition has been carefully designed and researched to have the maximum impact on those people who are ready to talk about climate change.

The research was carried out by COIN (Climate Outreach and Information Network), who ran workshops with a range of people to understand what messages worked, and what fell flat.  Not surprisingly, they found that people find most existing rhetoric on climate change disenfranchising, over-presumptive and preachy.  Pictures of polar bears and discussions of the “most serious threat we face” are a turn-off.  Certainly explains why it’s only really the “converted” that read my blog.

The one message that did gain traction was in tapping into people’s emotions and asking them what they love.  Almost certainly, whatever that is will be under threat by climate change.  You can then say something like “For the love of chocolate, we must do something about climate change”.  And so the conversation starts and is remembered.

This only works for people when the example is something real and precise, rather than abstract.  “For the love of the future” wouldn’t cut it.  It seems that the more emotional the connection and the unexpected the example the better. “For the love of a decent pitch” might work.  Above all, the message will be respected if it is seen as being said with integrity.

Next Monday I’ll be going to a meeting with the Climate Coalition to discuss the launch of this campaign, with 80 other representatives of the 100 or so organisations that form the coalition, representing their millions of supporters.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

There were a couple of other interesting insights in the COIN research.  One was that conservatives and community-minded optimists (like me) alike identified avoiding waste as a core value.  I wonder if the information that we dump 40kg of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for every 1kg of waste we put in landfill would bring a few more people along?

The other titbit of information in the COIN research was that a lot of people involved thought that examples of real people doing real things to solve the climate change problem would be persuasive.  Diverse voices work.  I’m glad to hear it, as that is the focus of the Power Shift UK conference in London on 3/4 May.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

So, you think I’m a bit mad?

I suspect you think I’m being melodramatic when I talk about society collapsing.  It might seem a tinsy bit far-fetched. I also think that the worse you think climate change is, the more they are likely to try to do something about it.  So I’m bringing in NASA to help outline my case.
I think denial that climate change is serious is a later form of denial that climate change exists in the first place.  I am personally getting over denial that we have only a small chance of dealing with climate change.  I’m now on to planning for the future, of which more in a mo.

So, to NASA.  They have recently released a theoretical report about the common causes of the collapse of civilizations in the past.  It seems that you need to be consuming more of the resources than are available plus be divided into an “elite” minority and the poor commoners.  The report compares those situations with our own, and recommends that we reduce our consumption and inequalities.

Just what I’ve been saying.

So, what does that collapse look like?  I’ll take the Roman Empire as an example.  Before its collapse, it was characterised by a highly-organised and connected trade network, allowing production of commodities such as food in one part of the world to feed those in another, particularly to support large cities.  As law broke down, due to inequality and hyper-inflation, people became more insular and self-sufficient.  Land ownership became the true economy, and freedom and civil rights were lost.  Serfdom began.  Society went backwards and took centuries to recover.  The population dropped dramatically, due to war and the plague.

We have a highly organised and connected trade network.  We are over-consuming resources.  Inequality is increasing.  China is buying up masses of land throughout the globe, including here in the UK.  Aaah!

On a related note, the Transition movement, of which I am part, is actively moving towards a more insular, self-sufficient society, with local currencies, local energy etc.  Do we want this?  Or is it a case of survival of the fittest?

The NASA report is not all doom and gloom, and neither should I be.  Collapse is avoidable, if we drastically reduce resource consumption and find technological ways to continue to survive in a more equitable manner.  I have to admit – I’m not sure we’re built that way.

Anyway, come to Berkhamsted on 21 May to hear the optimistic view from Mark Stevenson, author of “An Optimists Tour of the Future”, when he comes to deliver the third Ashlyns Lecture.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke