August 28th will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some who know its historical significance don't realize that King's speech is also a remarkable piece of rhetoric. The speech drew its power from King's rich metaphors, such as his comparison of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence to a promissory note that it was long past time for Americans to make good. "We have come to our nation's capital to cash a check."
King's speech drew its power from his deft use of alliteration and parallel structure, and his keen Baptist preacher's sense of cadence and sound. "I have a dream...that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood..."
But most of all, King's speech drew its power from the moral force of his demand that a nation's elected leaders right a glaring and egregious wrong: their failure to assure all Americans equal protection under the law.
Were he alive today, I believe that King would have demanded that our leaders act on climate. Social and economic justice was his cause, and the injustice of our present course can't be denied. From the heat wave that killed hundreds in Chicago to Hurricane Katrina killing thousands in the American South, people of color and the politically disenfranchised suffer disproportionate harm from extreme events that we can no longer dismiss as natural disasters.
In global terms, some of those most threatened by our carbon pollution -- including indigenous people of the far north, residents of the low-lying Maldive Islands nation, and the hundreds of millions of people who live in low-lying areas near the Indian Ocean -- face a climate crisis not of their making.
So will those who stand to inherit a climate-damaged planet -- including species like the polar bear, already struggling in an Arctic that may see temperatures rise by ten degrees Fahrenheit. Not to mention all the other species facing one of the worst waves of mass extinction in Earth's history, this one unique in that it's driven entirely by human activity.
Surely few things could be more unjust than that.
Environmental activists have sometimes been discouraged from using words like "climate catastrophe" or speaking of climate disruption in moral terms. Understandably, some have advised environmentalists to emphasize the potential for new jobs instead. And of course, the real economic benefits to be gained from moving to a clean energy economy are well worth emphasizing. Organizers of the 1963 March on Washington called it the March for Jobs and Freedom for good reason.
But I believe that people join the environmental movement for the same reason they join any social movement -- out of a desire to right wrongs. People see wolves needlessly slaughtered and they know it's wrong. They see pollution sources concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and they know it's wrong. They see once-pristine public lands -- our lands -- riddled with thousands of oil and gas wells. Appalachian mountains and streams lost forever to mountaintop removal. Water, air and quiet threatened by fracking. And they know it's wrong.
Speaking earlier this summer, President Obama said that "We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that's not polluted or damaged...." He said that "ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here" regarding climate. He surely knows that his presidency will be judged by that standard as well. He needs to make good on his promises -- and to rethink his commitment to nuclear power and natural gas -- but his framing of the crisis in moral terms couldn't be more apt.
A sense of moral imperative -- King's "fierce urgency of now" -- has driven social movements throughout our nation's history. It was and still is the force behind the struggle for civil rights and economic justice. It is the power that will ultimately allow us to win our struggle to leave a livable planet for generations to come.