By Kermit Hovey
What would Martin Luther King Jr. say to us about climate change, climate action, and climate justice if he were alive today? I will respectfully decline to put words into his mouth in direct answer. At the same time, I believe King had thoughts, spoke words, practiced actions, and used strategies that can profoundly speak to us. After all, climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and it is an issue that is deeply intertwined with issues of social justice in general and racial justice in particular.
As we work to address the climate crisis, we should consider the challenge of King’s wisdom and example. It is more than timely to do so in the shadow of his annual holiday of January 16 and in view of Black History Month coming up next month. We do this not to shift the season’s focus away from racial justice to climate justice. We do so to appreciate how the wisdom and strategies for addressing each also address and advance the other.
King’s message of nonviolent resistance and his call for a society based on equity and justice are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s. His work for civil rights challenges in several ways. It can inform and inspire our efforts against climate change and for climate justice.
King’s message of nonviolent resistance models the sorts of protests and grassroots activism needed to bring about change on climate issues. His belief in the power of nonviolent action is embodied in his famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote reminds us that change is possible, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but it requires persistence and the moral high ground of nonviolent action.
Also, King’s focus on social and economic justice resonates with our need, intention, and effort to address the inequitable impact of climate change on marginalized communities. Climate change is not a neutral issue; it disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are often on the frontlines of environmental degradation and extreme weather events.
King’s call for a society based on equity and justice should especially guide and empower our efforts to ensure that we protect its most vulnerable members from the worst effects of climate change. It is not right that those who are least responsible for the climate crisis are affected first and worst. Whether locally or globally, too often those in positions of power have chosen polluting technologies and infrastructure that put Black, Indigenous, and people of color most at risk. We must change that.
Additionally, King’s emphasis on collective action can inspire us to work together to address the climate crisis. King recognized that individual actions alone are not enough to bring about change. It takes collective action to create a movement. In the same way, addressing climate change requires collective action from individuals, communities, and governments.
Memorably, King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “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.”
His declaration of the interconnectedness and interdependence of everybody everywhere, regardless of color, sends social and racial justice ripples, if not tidal waves, that push not only for equitable housing, employment, and voting, but also for livable air, water, and climate for anybody anywhere.
As we consider King’s legacy along with the ongoing struggle for civil rights and racial justice, let’s appreciate that he never said it would be easy. His life of sacrifice and our nation’s history confirm that painful truth. Progress has been sporadic and difficult in the face of opposition and backsliding. So, let Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and example pursuing civil rights and racial justice challenge us to continue our own efforts.
Let us not only follow in those footsteps but continue in line with them to further address climate change and realize climate justice. His message of nonviolent resistance and focus on social and economic justice can invigorate our actions. His emphasis on collective action can inspire us to work together to create a more just and sustainable future. Regardless of needed sacrifice and inevitable opposition, let us work to bend the arc of history towards a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for all.