Why Climate Change Would Have Alarmed Dr. Martin Luther King
Jan 21, 2019
<h5>Dr. Martin Luther King's words suggest that he would have been concerned about climate change</h5>
<p class="speakable-paragraph">As Dr. Martin Luther King's National Day of Service approaches, I had an interesting thought as a scientist, writer, and human being. Climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity, and its impacts stretch far beyond science. Climate change is often discussed from the lens of agriculture, energy, public health, national security, or weather disasters. However, the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment report affirms previous studies that climate change disproportionately impacts marginalized, vulnerable, and disadvantaged populations of all races. The question that came to mind is "would Dr. King have been concerned about climate change?"</p><p class="speakable-paragraph"><br/></p><p class="speakable-paragraph"><img src="https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Fmarshallshepherd%2Ffiles%2F2019%2F01%2F14461-1200x780.jpg" style="height: 627px;width: 830px;"/></p> <h5>Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New OrleansFEMA</h5> <p>I think the answer is resoundingly "yes." There are clues in his writing and speeches that suggest that would he have been very concerned. A common misperception about Dr. King is that he fought for a specific group of people. Dr. King, like most great humanitarians, fought for anyone facing injustice. He likely would have been an activist for the planet once he saw who was most vulnerable (more on that shortly).</p><p><br/></p> <p>Five years ago, Forbes writer Alex Knapp featured this quote by Dr. King:</p><p><br/></p> <blockquote><p>"There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists," he said. "But not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary."</p></blockquote> <p><br/></p><p>This narrative clearly establishes that King, a man of the cloth, had no inherent problem or fear of science so let's dig deeper to find clues about his possible perspective on climate change.</p><p><br/></p> <p>Congressman Donald McEachin (D-Va) and Reverend Leo Woodbury, Pastor of Kingdom Living Temple, elevated this important quote for Dr. King in his recent editorial piece in The Hill:</p><p><br/></p> <blockquote><p>"All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” We must protect the one Earth God gave us. Now is the time for Washington to do what is right for all people; we will be driving home that message this week and in all the weeks to come."</p><p><br/></p></blockquote> <p>Their editorial referenced the burden that people of color and poverty face because of climate change in terms of certain health ailments, property in flood-prone or polluted areas, and so forth. This is no "race card" because it is understood that all people are exposed to or sensitive to weather and climate hazards. However, some groups are more resilient or adaptive to the impacts because of financial resources or an advantaged position. This is playing out right now in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.</p><p><br/></p> <p>Such climate justice issues have been exposed by Professors Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright for years. I recently had the honor of speaking on these very issues at their 6th Annual HBCU Climate Change Conference in New Orleans. Bullard and Wright eloquently highlight environmental justice issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina in their book, Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Though I worked at NASA for 12 years, it does not take a rocket science to understand that extreme weather events and climate change are connected. In fact, the National Academies published a comprehensive report summarizing such connections. </p><p><br/></p> <p>King understood environmental justice before any of our scholar papers, and his influence is seen in the current climate justice movement. I have often wondered if that is part of what Dr. King was conveying when he said,</p><p><br/></p> <blockquote><p>"We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers."</p></blockquote> <p><br/></p><p>Bob Deans argued in 2013 LiveScience opinion editorial entitled, "The Environmental Movement's Debt to Martin Luther King Jr" that landmark Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were inspired environmentalists watching Dr. King's crusade for civil rights and fair voting practices.</p><p><br/></p> <p>Reverend Gerald Durley is a mentor, friend, and colleague. Durley, a retired Senior Pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, sat in the sea of people as Dr. King articulated his "dream" to thousands of people in Washington and nationwide. Writing in the Huffington Post, Durley opines,</p><p><br/></p> <blockquote><p>"I never could have conceived of becoming a champion for climate change. As a pastor, it seemed trivial to prioritize polar bears in a world plagued by poverty, violence, drugs, and broken families. But, I have had a change of heart...Climate change is a civil rights issue...When your children suffer from asthma and cannot go outside to play, as is the case for many in Atlanta, it is a civil rights issue. When unprecedented weather disasters devastate the poorest neighborhoods in places like New Orleans, New Jersey, and New York, it is a civil rights issue. When farmers in faraway lands cannot feed their families because the rains will no longer come, it is a civil rights issue."</p><p><br/></p></blockquote> <p>Durley is echoing what King was saying in one of my favorite works, a "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." This letter has so much relevance today in a society crippled by echo chambers, silos and narrowness. King was writing about our connectedness, complacency, and those willing to turn a blind eye to injustice:</p><p><br/></p> <blockquote><p>"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."</p><p><br/></p></blockquote> <p>This quote could have easily been referring to the grand challenge of climate change, humanity and our single Earth community. It is why my science is my service to society on King's day.</p><p><br/></p><p><img src="https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Fmarshallshepherd%2Ffiles%2F2019%2F01%2Fscreenshot_528.jpg" style="height: 641px;width: 831px;"/></p> <h5>Quote on the wall at the MLK Memorial in Washington DC.Marshall Shepherd</h5> <h5><br/></h5><h5>Thank you to our friends at <i>FORBES</i><i> </i>for providing the original articles below</h5>
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