The Fundamentals of a Fundamentalist
by Bill Chameides | May 22nd, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
The Wall Street Journal called me and my ilk fundamentalists — “climate-change fundamentalists,” to be precise. So I did what any good scientist would do. I researched.
In the vernacular, fundamentalism is usually thought of as a religious movement. According to Wikipedia, such fundamentalism is a “’deep and totalistic commitment’ to a belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of a holy book, absolute religious authority, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (‘fundamentals’).”
Religious fundamentalism and liberalism or modernism are polar opposites. Perhaps because of a liberal stereotype attached to scientists, climate skeptics have wagged an accusatory “fundamentalist” finger at us scientists because we acknowledge the serious threat of global warming. Last week, I saw the “climate-change fundamentalist” epithet in a Wall Street Journal editorial (“McCain’s Climate Market,” May 13, 2008).
Digging deeper into the meaning of “fundamentalism,” I found a broader definition not related to religion. Miriam-Webster defines fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” For scientists, that kind of fundamentalism is the only tenable position.
Basic Science Surrounds Us in Technologies Old and New
Strict adherence to scientific laws does not preclude embracing subjective or faith-based beliefs related to spirituality or religion. Indeed many scientists claim to be religious. But rejecting the scientific method as a means of learning about the physical world makes no sense. Think about it. We all depend upon electricity. Magic doesn’t make the light come on when you flip the switch. The bulb illuminates because of basic laws of physics.
Newton’s law of gravity is based on his observation that apples fall downwards from trees — that was not Newton’s personal, subjective experience of apples but a universal one. The first law of thermodynamics, that energy is conserved, is not something one can choose to believe in or reject. It is a fundamental fact of life. Seen any perpetual motion machines lately?
We have harnessed these laws to improve our quality of life through centuries of scientific inquiry, learning how the physical world works through objective collection of empirical data. Future innovations and advances will largely depend on our ability to continue to use basic scientific principals as our guide.
Global Warming Science Goes Back More Than a Century
Our understanding of climate change does not derive from mere supposition or vague simulations either. It is based on more than a century of scientific inquiry:
- Observations of carbon isotopes prove that burning fossil fuels is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide;
- Satellite measurements of the radiation leaving the earth provide irrefutable evidence that carbon dioxide is warming the Earth; and
- Direct measurements show that “natural” explanations for global warming, like a hotter sun or extra heat from the ocean, are not viable.
So we are left with only one tenable conclusion: our dependence on fossil fuels is driving global warming.
The potentially serious consequences of global warming are already self-evident. Consider this rapidly unfolding scenario. High-altitude glaciers are melting around the world. Perhaps a billion or more people who depend upon those glaciers for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power will soon be left, literally, high and dry. In a globalized economy, that is a problem we will all have to deal with.
What a Science Fundamentalist Is and Is Not
So, I confess: when it comes to science, I adhere to an understanding of the physical world revealed through the scientific method. In the case of climate, science has shown to a very high degree of certainty that global warming is a problem largely of our own making and one that requires our attention and action. Continued observations show a much swifter response is needed.
Being a science fundamentalist does not shut out new ideas and findings. Indeed, science — a never-ending investigation leading to a constantly evolving understanding of the physical world — requires an open mind that enables us to shed old ideas and embrace new ones as the scientific evidence demands. Over much of the 1980s and 1990s I was unconvinced, even skeptical that people were playing a role in global warming. As with the discovery of the light bulb, the scientific method can take decades to unfold. Ultimately the evidence (outlined above) became overwhelming. Having studied the forces at play, I re-evaluated my view and recognized the very real problem of climate change.
If such adherence to scientific principles makes me one, then so be it. I am a climate change fundamentalist.filed under: climate change, faculty