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Climate, Civil Rights and Dr. King

(By Dr.Asoka Bandarage)   I participated in the “Poor People’s March” organized by Dr. Martin Luther King and held in Washington D.C. in June 1968 in the aftermath of his assassination. I also participated in the “Pray in for Climate” organized by the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC) to honor the 85th birthday of Dr. King in Washington D.C. on January 15, 2014. Extreme weather events associated with climate change affect poor communities the most, although their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is much less than those of the richest communities. In the spirit of Dr. King, activists are increasingly calling for “climate justice” and “freedom from fossil fuels.'” It is likely that if Dr. King were alive, he would be a leader of the growing climate and environmental justice movement today.

Dr. King was not simply a leader of the African-American or the Christian communities. He struggled for freedom from oppression for all communities. His definition of civil liberties was not limited to due process of law, equal protection, and freedom from discrimination. It encompassed economic justice. Identifying the interconnected problems of “racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism,” he called for the “reconstruction of society itself” as the foundation for civil rights.

If he were alive today, Dr. King would recognize that in the absence of governmental leadership, time for effective action on climate is running out. He would emphasize the “fierce urgency” of environmental protection and the right to clean air, water, and soil as civil and human rights of all. He would remind us that “evil flourishes when good people do nothing.” He would exhort us to non-violent action to protect the environment to support life on Earth. Dr. King would approach the climate and the environment from a fundamentally moral and spiritual standpoint, as he did civil liberties and economic justice.

Inspired by the words and activism of Dr. King, IMAC has called upon leaders of all religious and faith organizations in the U.S. to provide moral leadership to address the climate emergency. Along with other climate protection movements around the country, IMAC demands a number of urgent actions from the U.S. government. These include calls on President Obama to use his executive powers to regulate carbon emissions and to ensure that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement(which consists of 12 countries including the U.S., Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Canada) does not undermine the environment and efforts to address the climate crisis. Another call is for the U.S. to provide serious financial support to prevent and mitigate the effects of climate disruption on the poorest and most vulnerable nations. Climate activists also want President Obama to deny outright all construction permits for the Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline, tar-oil being among the most dangerous of the planet-heating forms of carbon.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not heeding to these demands. Unlike some northern European countries, the United States is yet to place a price on carbon or introduce a carbon tax. A leaked draft of the TPP Agreement reveals that it lacks fully enforceable safeguards to protect the environment including wildlife and natural resources. The recent COP 19 (Conference of the Parties) held in Warsaw on the climate fell far short of the detailed funding commitment expected by poor countries from the developed nations including the United States. Notwithstanding growing environmental concerns, the Obama administration has not backed off from theKeystone XL Pipeline either. The TransCanada oil and gas corporation expects to start the Southern Leg of the Keystone Pipeline on January 22, 2014.

Although the U.S. government has failed to heed environmental and moral injunctions, the non-governmental civil society sector is making rapid and important strides in addressing climate change. One important initiative in this regard is theemerging divestment movement. Two hundred publicly-traded companies hold the vast majority of listed coal, oil, and gas reserves in the U.S. Divestment activists want these companies to stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, stop lobbying for special advantages in Washington and state capitols across the country and pledge to keep 80 percent of their current reserves underground. The activists see unmitigated use of fossil fuels as a moral issue: “It is wrong to wreck the climate… it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Following the precedent set by the anti-apartheid divestment movement to support civil and human rights in South Africa, today’s climate activists are seeking to shift financial investments away from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in institutions that support clean, renewable energy technologies. The successes of this new divestment movement is hardly ever reported in the mainstream news media. Yet, as a young activist from Greenfaith read a long list of colleges and universities, cities, counties, religious institutions, and other organizations around the country that have divested money from fossil fuel companies, the power of citizen organizing became apparent to those present at the “Pray in for Climate.” A few activists there engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to protest the southern wing of the Keystone Pipeline while others sang songs of inspiration, bringing to memory earlier marches on Washington for freedom and justice. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” remains alive guiding the struggle for freedom and survival of humanity and Mother Earth of which we are all a part:

“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.

But not only that.

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”















Dr.Asoka Bandarage received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Yale University. She has extensive research and publishing experience in  Ethnic and Religious Conflict,International Development,Political Economy,Women and Gender Studies,Multiculturalism,Conflict Analysis and Resolution,Peace and Security,Population and Ecology and Democracy in South Asia.

Dr. Bandarage also serves on the boards of a number of publications and professional organizations including Critical Asian Studies and The National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs.She has presented hundreds of lectures and received numerous awards and fellowships for her work.

Dr.Asoka Bandarage is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan,2013). Ms. Bandarage is an associate of the Interfaith Moral Action on the Climate (IMAC), and has taught at Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, American and other universities.

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