Reflecting on MLK’s legacy through the lens of weather and climate

January 17

A poster of Martin Luther King Jr. reflects on MLK Avenue SE in Anacostia, a block from the new Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, DC on August 4, 2013. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

Guest commentary

Dr. King’s Dream is tangible for me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in 1963:

“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

He uttered this speech at a time when the American Meteorological Society (AMS) likely had only a handful of African American members. Over 50 years later, one of those “little black” boys grew up to preside over this esteemed organization with contributions from all races, genders, and cultures. I am the second African American to serve as AMS President. My mentor and recent National Medal of Science recipient and pioneering NCAR scientist, Dr. Warren Washington, was the first.

African Americans are still under-represented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers and my field is no exception. However, I offered some thoughts on how to overcome this in a recent Ebony.com article. I originally hesitated when approached to be put on the ballot for the AMS Presidency, but then I reflected on how I might inspire some boy or girl, irrespective of race.

One of Dr. King’s most poignant statements is “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’

On January 20, 2014, we celebrate The Martin Luther King National Holiday. This holiday honors the civil rights legacy of Dr. King while uplifting the nation through a Day of Service. The MLK holiday is not National “African American” Day. It is truly a day of service applicable to every American and reflects ideals that any citizen with core values and principles can support.

Over the years, the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting has been held close to MLK Day. AMS members have conducted service projects such as helping rebuild communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or cleaning Austin, Texas communities. This year, the AMS Annual meeting convenes in Dr. King’s home city of Atlanta, Georgia. A series of service projects are planned to help prepare the Atlanta and broader community for weather hazards. These projects are particularly aimed at under-represented minority groups, Boy and Girl Scout groups, and K-12 education. Our partnership with National Weather Service’s Weather Ready Nation initiative truly reflects the spirit of MLK Day while in King’s “own back yard”.

Through the lens of my professional community, I also know that a “weather and climate gap” is emerging within communities. Government data, private analysis, and academic study upon study confirm income gap and health gaps exist among under-represented groups. This gap is increasingly revealed in disparities because of weather and climate extremes.

Studies affirm that vulnerable groups such as racial minorities, the poor, young kids and elderly are more likely to perceive great risks from natural disasters, but are less likely to heed warnings; experience greater psychological and physical impacts, and are slower to recover. Such groups also experience, at a greater rate, a multitude of extreme weather-climate health issues like heat stress, upper respiratory illnesses, water borne disease, and post-traumatic stress. Coupled with these stressors, weather-climate price inflation, as seen during the 2012 Midwest drought or after particularly active Gulf Coast hurricane seasons, and loss of job/work hours tend to compound such impacts because of the pre-existing income gaps. I suspect that Dr. King would have viewed this as a civil rights issue too.

Look, I am not “playing any cards” here. I am simply highlighting the well-known concept of vulnerability. All people suffered during Hurricane Katrina, but the faces staring at cameras in the Superdome or on buses headed to Houston disproportionately reflected segments of our population with the least amount of adaptive capacity or resilience. A forthcoming study out of the University of Georgia Department of Geography, to be presented at the upcoming AMS conference, finds that many of the fatalities associated with the well-forecasted Superstorm Sandy were from under-represented groups.

Forecasts, outcomes, and science associated with meteorology and climate science play a significant role in the average citizen’s life. The stability of the economy, public health, national security, and our built infrastructure in the United States is directly traceable to weather and climate. Further, the valiant work of our federal, broadcast/media, and private sector colleagues save lives during emerging weather hazards like the Moore, Oklahoma outbreak. Accuweather Senior Vice President Mike Smith made this point very nicely in a recent Washington Post editorial.

The next time the nation is faced with a devastating tornado outbreak, a major hurricane, extreme urban flooding, or an oppressive heatwave, I encourage us all to reflect on the goals of MLK Day and serve: somebody probably needs our help.

About the Author: Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is the 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society and only the second African American to be elected to head the leading professional society in weather and climate related sciences. He is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. Dr. Shepherd is an internationally respected scientist with over 75 publications. The White House, Congress, NASA, NOAA and major media outlets routinely call upon Dr. Shepherd as an expert on weather and climate topics. Prior to joining the University of Georgia, Dr. Shepherd spent 12 years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center developing advanced missions and science to study planet Earth. Dr. Shepherd received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering at the White House in 2004 and has received numerous other awards

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