January 20, 2014
Dear Climate Activists:
I write because I understand that many in your movement are presently disillusioned, even despairing, of the current state of affairs in the United States regarding climate protection. And, maybe, you have every right to be so.
The hour is late with regards to the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants. Scientists have concluded that we have ten, maybe twenty years at the outside, to avoid the unfathomable – the world’s climate lurching into instability, causing destructive super-storms, famine-inducing droughts, ferocious wildfires, flood-causing sea-level rise, numerous species die-off, and system-altering ocean acidification. The ecological devastation to God’s Creation will be accompanied by widespread harm to human populations around the globe, many, of course, being marginalized and economically poor peoples who are least blameworthy for their horrific predicament.
And despite the dire predictions of science, the vast majority of the world’s governments have done little to nothing to encourage a rapid transformation of their fossil fuel-based economies to ones based on clean renewable energies. Meanwhile, the powerful private interests – especially the energy companies, some of the wealthiest corporations in human history – openly flout the apocalyptic warnings, pushing ahead to exploit the very last of the climate-wrecking carbon fuels, seemingly in a concerted effort to push the world beyond the point of no return vis-à-vis its climate.
However, when I look back at the early years of our civil rights struggle in the U.S., I recall that we faced the same frighteningly low odds of success. Standing in our way defiantly, was a white power structure that had codified a system of segregation, bolstered by a long tradition of brutal racism among some and placid acceptance among others. Yet, through toil and suffering, we reached the mountaintop, overcoming what had earlier seemed nearly impossible to defeat. And we did so through marches, sit-ins, and nonviolent direct actions, including, at times civil disobedience, all the while showing, as Jesus would have done, love toward our opponents even in the face of their terrifying beatings and bombings. And in time, as the moderate forces in our society slowly embraced the righteousness of our cause, the hardened walls of segregation and racism began to crumble.
So, I offer the following advice gleaned from the struggle of an earlier time with the hope that it is helpful to your cause.
First, when your more restrained colleagues and supporters counsel you to be patient as victory will surely come with reasoned negotiation without the unruliness of marches and massive resistance, remember what I wrote to my counterparts from the Birmingham City Jail in 1963: ‘We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights.’ And ‘we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.’ In a similar vein, climate activists can fairly argue that 20-plus years (since global warming science was first introduced to the American public) is long enough to wait for the country’s governmental and corporate leaders to address the environmental crisis that threatens our way of life, if not our very existence. Clearly, reasoned negotiation through the political process has been an utter failure, a reality that portends a colossal intergenerational injustice about to be knowingly given to the young and unborn. It is beyond question that widespread nonviolent direct action is now warranted to protect the Earth’s climate.
Second, I have heard that many in your movement express concern over those who advocate breaking the law in order to further the cause of protecting the climate. Advocates for civil rights faced the same concerns in our time. The concern is groundless. I maintain that ‘there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."’ Those fighting for climate protection can rightly argue that the laws that support and promote expansion of fossil fuel use are unjust – they are fostering environmental injustice on whole populations of virtually powerless peoples. As such, activists have an ethical imperative to refuse to abide by them. Activists must take to heart that ‘nonviolent resistance is … based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.’
In close, I say that your cause to preserve a stable climate is noble and just, and that ‘to suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity’s full stature.’
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.