An Ice Scientist's iPhone

As acceptance speeches go, I think Prof Richard Alley’s certainly makes the grade. On Wednesday, upon receipt of this year’s Geological Society of London’s prestigious Wollaston Medal for his outstanding geoscience career, particularly on ice and climate, Richard held up his iPhone and asked us what he had in his hand.

An iPhone is essentially a handful of sand, a tiny pile of rare earth elements and precious metals: mainly silicon for the screen and chip, lithium with platinum and palladium, neodymium and europium, all mixed with a dash of oil. There's also a whole bunch of Nobel prize winning work that has gone on, such as general and special relativity theories and quantum mechanics to operate the GPS satellite communications and location finders, and that's just scratching the surface.

Science and scientists made the iPhone. This is high technology that all of us demand and take for granted.

So why does the iPhone in some hands make anti-science – climate deniers, sceptics, confusion and fake news? 

Prof Alley cited a recent US survey of American citizens, asking if they believed climate change was a real problem, if they ever talked about it, and whether science could solve it. The survey showed the majority didn’t believe in global warming nor did they discuss it with friends and neighbours, but ironically everyone believed that scientists could solve it – ‘the scientists’ will solve a non-existent problem that no one talks about – and this from the most advanced nation on the planet.  It’s hardly surprising really, as in the hands of the US President, an iPhone has been used to Tweet over 100 times denying climate risks.  President Trump has shamefully led US withdrawal from the 21st Conference of the Parties in 2015 – the Paris Agreement – which diminishes the best universal strategy to confront global warming.

Scientists are not magicians so the precise degree and dates of the oncoming waves of catastrophe are not known. This gives sceptics the false idea that scientists are confused, and if climate change confuses the experts then it cannot be real. All of this is just noise. The same people expect scientists to work to find cures to help their loved ones, and technology to improve their lives. The science is there, and it’s good science. We can know for sure that the oceans store more than 9/10ths of the heat trapped on Earth by greenhouse-gas emissions.  In the oceans, warming and acidification from carbon gasses is killing coral and dependant colonies of sea life right now and it will all be gone for good within 50 years, maybe less.  Plastic rubbish in the oceans currently weighs more than fish by weight. Plastic is broken down into tiny micro particles and enters our own human bodies via the fish 3 billion of us eat as our primary source of protein.  Warmer temperatures are melting the great Polar stores of ice we need safely locked away to keep our cities and farmland high and dry. Fast changing ice conditions in West Antarctica and Greenland which will increase sea water levels irreversibly are a real threat to our homes and jobs wherever we live, from New York to New Orleans; from Khulna in Bangladesh to right here in London. Severe floods of the type we see once a generation will become the new norm for our children's children.

Like ostriches we can continue to stick our heads in the hi-tec sand in our hands, or use it now to help ourselves and our world and support science. It’s the best tool we have to bounce discussion with our friends and acquaintances and apply pressure. We can dial up the contact details of our elected representatives to push for US re-engagement in the Paris Agreement, correct ignorant tweets, and email for action to achieve sustainability goals to safeguard the world for us now, and our grandchildren.

As Prof Richard Alley showed us on Wednesday, the power is quite literally in our hands.