Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:45:12 AM CST

Top Stories

Jennifer Draper/MEDILL

The consequences of global warming and the civil rights struggle are  similar because the poor and minorities suffer first and most, said climate change expert Warren Washington in his keynote speech Monday.

Pioneering scientist connects civil rights to climate change

by Jennifer Draper
Jan 23, 2014


Jennifer Draper/MEDILL

Pioneering scientist Warren Washington  (second from right) talked about his own civil rights struggle during the candlelight vigil honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at the Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston.

Internationally acclaimed atmospheric scientist Warren Washington, 77, drove home the connection between civil rights and climate change this week at Northwestern University.

His remarks commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. during a candlelight vigil Monday at the Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston.

The connection between civil rights and global warming is the answer to the question, "Who’s going to be affected by climate change?" said Washington.

He warned that it is the poor and minorities who will suffer the most in each case, because they often lack the power to get their ideas known and needs addressed.

“And if the sea level rises as much as we think it will, in the worst-case scenario, there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be affected in a bad way,” Washington said.

As early as the 1960s, Washington’s climate models foretold how increasing carbon dioxide levels could cause the planet to warm up. He explained that society has a “big role to play” in the decision to cut back on fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2.

“We’re seeing that warming now, except for little episodes like the polar vortex” this winter, he said.

Washington has also served as a science adviser to former presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

He said he watched Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech, “I Have A Dream,” on a motel television on his way to join the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., where he works to this day.

“I suspect that, if he was aware of the climate change argument, he would strongly support it,” Washington said.

Citing King’s 1962 speech regarding the environment in New York City, Washington said King’s concern about the effect of nuclear weapons destroying the Earth applies to the current climate change discussion.

Brandan Matthews, chair of the planning committee for the Northwestern event, first saw Warren Washington on a PBS episode of “HistoryMakers” about his life story as the second African-American to earn a doctorate in atmospheric science.

“Martin Luther King was an inspiration for his endeavors on climate research,” Matthews said. He saw a lot of discrimination and was a pioneer in his field.”

Washington, a native of Portland, Ore., talked about his “awkward” personal experiences with segregation in the South, including having to use a side door to go to the movies. He recalled what life was like attending Oregon State University 60 years ago.

“There were 10 African-American students on campus,” Washington said. “Eight of them were on the football team. I was the only physics major. But it had some sort of benefits, because when I wanted to get into a sporting event, I weighed 125 pounds, and I told them I was a tackle.”

He earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.

Washington dealt with the civil rights struggle in his youth, and now he gets death threats because of his work in climate change, he said, and continues to fight against the misinformation surrounding climate science.

“Remember that Martin Luther King left us a legacy for the nation and the world,” Washington said. “We owe a great deal to his accomplishments but he really wanted us to carry on the future battles that needed to be won, and it’s up to us to carry forward.”

One such battle is the need for institutions to make a solid commitment to increase diversity in the academic areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Washington said.

“I am one of the many people who benefited from Warren's encouragement of students and young scientists,” said NASA sea ice expert Claire Parkinson, in an email interview.

She said it was his invitation to develop a sea ice model at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that became the core of her doctoral dissertation.

“Warren has worked hard to encourage diversity in the sciences, encouraging many individual minority and female scientists,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson, a scientist with NASA's Aqua Project, also wrote a book with Washington, “Introduction To Three-dimensional Climate Modeling.”

Washington’s seemingly endless list of accomplishments range from the National Medal of Science, presented by President Barack Obama in 2010, to an honorary doctorate from Brown University, to his induction into the National Academy of Sciences Portrait Collection of African Americans in Science, Engineering and Medicine. He has served on the National Science Board.

Washington preserves Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by example and continues to influence new generations.

“It’s important for more young minorities to pick up those fields,” Northwestern student Matthews said. “His speech was helpful to really give [students] an inspiration to move forward and realize that, although they might not be the majority, Dr. Washington did it 50 years ago, and that they can do it too.”

Matthews, a senior industrial engineering major at Northwestern, said he relates to Washington’s scientific aspirations. He invited the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner to share his memories of Martin Luther King Jr., as his contemporary, with the community gathered at Alice Millar Chapel.

Washington, Matthews and Martin Luther King Jr. all belong to the same fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, in which Matthews is currently president of Northwestern's Alpha Mu Chapter.

“Dr. Washington is a role model, mentor and inspiration for many generations of young researchers from diverse backgrounds,” Alpha Phi Alpha brother Cameron Dickerson said.