As we approach another Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday, I have been reflecting on one of his most important writings, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote this epic letter on April 16th, 1963 as a political prisoner. Dr. King and many civil rights leaders were in Birmingham as a part of a coordinated campaign of sit-ins and marches against racial segregation. He was arrested for “defying” an injunction issued by a judge suppressing their rights to protest. King penned his letter in response to clergy who criticized him for his non-violent activism. He implored people of all races, particularly the racial majority, to take a stand against race-biased laws and to act on behalf of justice. Let’s explore three lessons from his letter that apply to the climate crisis today.
Dr. King wrote, “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.” He was responding to those that called him an “outside agitator,” but this statement hits home for me as a climate scientist. Our weather-climate system is intricately connected to every aspect of our daily lives. Climate change is a crisis disrupting agricultural productivity, public health, economic well-being, national security, water supply, and our infrastructure. I always try to make this point because too many people don’t make the connections to their daily lives. Trust me, they are there when you buy groceries or gasoline, turn your faucet on, consider your health, or watch relatives battered by storms like Hurricane Ida. Like racism of King’s day (and now), certain groups of people disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change – the poor, elderly, children, and communities of color. We can no longer sit idly be either as heat waves, hurricanes, and flooding ravage communities. Climate change impacts are accelerating and the economic gap is widening. Something tells me Dr. King would have been on the frontlines for this crisis too.
Another part of the letter that I want to highlight is this statement – “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” He is explaining why his non-violent actions were needed to break the inertia of inaction and produce negotiations. I am often frustrated as things happen around us that we as scientists have warned for decades were coming. While rapidly intensifying hurricanes, record warm months or years, or deluges in New York City make headlines, these extreme events are not breaking news to climate scientists. This past week a NOAA report pointed out that 20 climate disasters exceeding $1 billion in damage costs each happened in the 2021. Increasingly, public surveys signal that we have moved beyond misguided questions like “Is climate change real?” or “Is it a hoax?” It reminds me of the same skepticism some people exhibited at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic but now look at where we are (over 5.5 deaths globally at the time of writing). We need the same sense of urgency and action on the climate crisis. We need dialogue (and action) now. A recent bipartisan infrastructure bill is a start, but other climate-related legislation is languishing in partisan bickering.
The final part of the letter (and you should consider reading it all for the King holiday of service) that I want to feature is this statement by Dr. King to his white clergy peers. He wrote, “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman….” For me, this is a statement of unity. Many of us are shaped by our race, faith, ideological, geographic, cultural, or other marinades. They flavor us over time creating “tribes” and silos. King highlighted commonalities within a cloud of tense disagreement. We have a commonality too – Earth. It’s the only livable planet we have. It is in our best interest to promote good stewardship of it and make sure it is that way for our kids and so on.