Climate Change and the Importance of Dr. King's Call to Remain Awake


Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering a powerful call for freedom and equality that still resonates decades later. I’ve always found inspiration in Dr. King’s writings, and in remembering this great leader in our history, I recently re-read the last sermon he gave before his death.

What surprised me was that the sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” includes so many parallels to our lives today. Dr. King spoke about the importance of “remaining awake” – constantly staying involved, seeking progress, and acknowledging that our actions have important impacts on the lives of others.

For the Americans watching Washington in action today, our policymakers look anything but awake. We’re stuck in a place where many of our leaders are actively choosing to block progress, following a path that ensures that little to nothing gets accomplished. In Dr. King’s framework, they have chosen to sleep. Sadly we are all paying the price.

As I read on, another passage in the sermon also struck me:

“Through our scientific and technological genius,

we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we … must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny,…And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

We truly have made this world a neighborhood. With cell phones, the internet, and faster transportation, we are even more connected than we were during Dr. King’s time. Yet, when it comes to race, immigration, gender equality, guns, or climate change, we remain a nation divided.

In my work on climate change this is especially true. Whether it’s the giant wildfire burning in Yosemite National Park, currently threatening the main freshwater source for 2.6 million residents in the Bay Area, the droughts in the Midwest, or the disastrous flooding in the South, it is inescapable that as far as our planet’s future is concerned, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly;” and, quite often, directly.

The 2012 wildfire season is shaping up to be the one of the worst on record in the American West and there is little doubt that these wildfires are fueled by a changing climate. Warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns have made the region hotter and drier, turning our forests into the perfect fuel for enormous fires. Wildfires cost us billions of dollars and threaten our water and power supply, our homes, our health, and the lives of firefighters.

The impacts of climate change are no longer something we can ignore. They are happening now, and right in our own backyards. The National Climatic Data Center’s monthly report, reports that the lower 48 states experienced their fifth wettest July on record. Yet, all of that rain has not helped to relieve drought conditions that affect more than 41 percent of the United States. Meanwhile, in the Northeast people are still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and dealing with the devastation and memories of lives lost that remain vividly alive one year later. Even cities that have escaped the worse of it are living with the reality that the cost of climate change affects us all. Rising seas are already backing up storm sewers in Miami Beach, flooding city streets at high tide, and leaving taxpayers with the bill.

If this is what we are facing today, what can we logically expect tomorrow? What kind of world can we truly expect to leave to our children and grandchildren? Unless we cut carbon pollution now, extreme weather events and impacts like these will only become more frequent in the future. It’s time to awaken to the reality that climate change is happening now, and that we must own our actions and work together—as a brother or sisterhood—to solve this problem.

President Obama has chosen to awaken to this reality and face it head on with his new climate action plan. Obama’s plan starts out strong, setting limits on carbon pollution from power plants—the largest source of global warming pollution in the country—while also boosting energy efficiency and improving fuel efficiency standards.

We know that even though climate change will impact the poor more seriously and more quickly than it will those who have greater means, ultimately it will affect us all. Climate change knows no borders, no race, and no social status. We can choose to tackle the problem together, or, as Dr. King said, “perish together as fools.”

In the coming months and years we have a choice to support the President’s plan to tackle climate change or be distracted. Big polluters would, of course, prefer we remain asleep rather than awaken to the reality that this is a battle against pollution and its impacts on our kids, our homes, our livelihoods and our future. Winning that battle requires action, awareness, and unity.  

It’s time to stand together again because while we may adapt and build resilience, we can’t buy our way out of this crisis. We owe it to future generations to stand up for a world that can sustain us, with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, and the stability we need to build safe communities. The world is indeed our neighborhood. Let’s come together and protect it.