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A Career Connecting Race Relations and Climate Change

Courtesy of Steve Curwood

Steve Curwood has spent twenty five years reporting on environmental issues. Before that, he was an investigative journalist with a focus on human rights and social justice. Turns out, those issues aren’t as disparate as they may seem.

As a young, African-American man, the son of a single mother, and a Quaker, the issues on Curwood’s mind were civil rights, poverty, women’s rights, and the war in Vietnam.

In 1970, within a year of graduating from Harvard University, Curwood broke a story for the Boston Phoenix linking Polaroid to apartheid in South Africa. The Cambridge-based company’s instant photo technology was being used to create pass-cards that black South Africans were required to carry.

Curwood went on to work as an investigative journalist for the Boston Globe, CBS, both WGBH and WBUR in Boston. Curwood hosted Weekend All Things Considered and NPR’s World of Opera.

But, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Curwood’s interested shifted dramatically. With some prompting from his son, Curwood revisited some of his early work on Congressional air pollution hearings and then talked with George Woodwell, founder of Woods Hole Research Center, about the science of climate change.

“In terms of climate disruption, I think this is the most important story of our times,” Curwood says. “If we make the planet uninhabitable for humans…war and peace, the economy, equal rights for people of color, equal rights based on gender – none of that will matter.”

Living on Earth first aired in 1991, the year before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established. That treaty – signed and ratified by the U.S. during George H. W. Bush’s presidency – launched the annual negotiations that led, eventually, to last year’s historic Paris climate agreement.

In the interim, the politics of climate change has changed dramatically, with many Republican politicians now questioning or outright denying the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and largely caused by human greenhouse gas emissions.

“Last time I checked, if one person says 2+2=4 and the other person says 2+2=5, the right answer isn’t four and a half,” says Curwood. “You got to go with the scientific consensus.”

Curwood has turned his personal experiences with discrimination into an asset in reporting on the politically sensitive issue of climate change.

“I understood the dynamic of discrimination. If you want to survive it, you have to understand, accept it, and move past it,” says Curwood. “I felt very comfortable covering the environment as a journalist knowing how so many authoritative folks wanted to trash that approach because it was something I was used to, as a person society tried to marginalize in other ways.”

Curwood also says that the history of race relations, both in the U.S. and South Africa, informs his views on our prospects for dealing with climate change. He cites the fact that South Africa ended apartheid, that the U.S. abolished slavery and gave black citizens the right to vote. While neither nation has solved their race issues, by any stretch of the imagination, Curwood says the improvements in both countries give him hope.

“The question is, are we going to have to go so deep into this [climate change] problem that the solution is as ugly and brutal as the Civil War was to end slavery,” wonders Curwood. “That’s what I pray we don’t have to go through.”

While Curwood worries about that possibility, he remains fundamentally optimistic about our ability to deal with both climate change and the many social challenges we face.

“When we come right with the political process to deal with climate, we’ll come right with our social process,” said Curwood. “We will be a more loving and supportive species.

Steve Curwood will host the Our Oceans = Our Future symposium at the Nantucket Field Station on Friday, August 12th.