When he met with governors this summer from Western states wracked by wildfires and drought, President Joe Biden highlighted one way to tackle the climate crisis that goes beyond more funding for aerial firefighting and better forest management: a Civilian Climate Corps.
Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, the Climate Corps would put people to work in short-term jobs or training programs that would focus on renewable technology and building resilience against the climate crisis.
“The CCC is about saving the planet, but it’s also about making the planet a place where people feel it’s actually worth saving,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who is leading the Civilian Climate Corps push in the Senate, told CNN. “We want good jobs with good wages, but our goal is to unleash the idealism of young people in our country and give them the ability to work on solving this climate crisis.”
As with most things in Democrats’ budget bill, it has a fraught road to passage. High-ranking Democrats in the House and Senate disagree on how the program should be structured. But a Climate Corps would be a major win for progressive groups, including Sunrise Movement, which has demonstrated outside the Capitol and the White House and organized marches along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast and in wildfire-stricken areas of California.
“It’s been at the forefront of our demands of the Biden administration,” said Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash, who served on a climate policy working group during Biden’s presidential campaign. “It’s given us some symbolism of the kind of future we’re looking towards as well.”
Throwback to the 1930s
The idea of a Civilian Climate Corps was inspired largely by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established to combat the devastating unemployment of the Great Depression.
From 1933 until 1942, FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps put roughly 3 million men to work constructing hiking trails and shelters, roads, bridges and telephone lines.
Remnants of the old program remain in buildings and trails, including at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Colorado or the cabins that can be rented at Linn Run State Park in Pennsylvania.
Joe Neguse, a Democratic congressman from Colorado, recently visited Red Rocks in his home state, which has also been besieged by wildfires in recent years. He was inspired by the idea of taking a page out of FDR’s playbook to address 21st-century challenges, particularly climate change.
But, he said, there would need to be some critical modernization.
At a news briefing in July, Neguse, who is Black, said he would not have been able to join the corps in the 1930s — the program excluded women and Black people. Although some conservation corps camps allowed men of color, program officials ended up segregating them into a different service location.
“We are working very hard to make sure that we improve the CCC so that it, unlike its predecessor program, ultimately reflects the rich diversity of our country as it should,” Neguse told CNN. “We are making a real focused effort in terms of trying to ensure that we’re, for example, recruiting from front-line communities so that ultimately we have an equitable and diverse corps membership.”
A job with the Climate Corps
A Civilian Climate Corps could potentially tackle two of America’s crises: climate change and a pandemic-fueled economic crisis. With millions of people still unemployed, economists are increasingly worried about the road to recovery.
Early estimates from progressive lawmakers showed the corps could employ about 1.5 million Americans over five years in jobs including forest management, fire mitigation, building climate resiliency and conservation projects.
Corps members could help make areas ravaged by climate disasters more resilient. For instance, they could be employed for forest management in fire-prone states, trail maintenance around the country, restoring habitats and wetlands, and planting trees. Agencies like the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service could be in charge of the implementation of the corps, and would help determine what corps members do.
In addition to jobs, Civilian Climate Corps proponents in Congress want generous scholarship opportunities and easy pathways for corps members to move into long-term careers when they’re done serving.
The number of jobs it would create, how much people would be paid and what they would be doing is dependent on how much money the House and Senate allocate to the Climate Corps, and how Congress structures it. Congress’ funding decisions could have a lot of bearing on the scope of the corps — and how ambitious it can be.
State-run programs could be a model
Part of California’s response to the impact of climate change was to create a state Climate Action Corps in 2020. The program has about 300 members, and they expect to add several hundred more, said the state’s Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday.
“Climate is very real for California,” Fryday told CNN, noting the severe 2021 wildfire season and persistent drought. “The idea is we need our corps members focused on what’s going to make a meaningful impact around climate change, what’s going to reduce greenhouse emissions. People want to feel they’re not powerless in a situation.”
California’s program is run through the federally backed community service program AmeriCorps, offering a good preview of what a national corps program might look like: A lot of its work has involved planting trees, programs around composting and reducing food waste, urban forestry and fire mitigation.
Wyoming has had a Conservation Corps since 2006. Based at the University of Wyoming, that program is also run through AmeriCorps; students help restore habitats on public land and maintain trails for academic credit.
A full-time AmeriCorps member makes a minimum living stipend of just $16,000 per year, but according to Natasha Dabrowski, AmeriCorps press secretary, many AmeriCorps grantees pay above that amount. Full-time members also have access to health care, child care and trainings, as well as $6,000 scholarships once they complete their terms of service, she told CNN.
But Fryday said the pay needs to get better to attract more members.
“We have to make sure people are making a living wage as they’re doing this critical work,” Fryday said.
Short-term jobs or workforce training?
Some lawmakers are advocating for the corps to be run through AmeriCorps, arguing that the program made the most sense to employ young people in short-term service jobs, planting trees or building up climate resilience.
The AmeriCorps program focuses on community work after disasters, providing academic tutors from elementary to high school students, building and repairing sustainable homes, and more. In 2017, approximately 73,000 AmeriCorps members at more 20,000 locations across the US worked in community service, including rebuilding homes in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
“The CCC will build on our existing AmeriCorps network to provide good-paying opportunities for Americans to help combat climate emergencies like drought, wildfire or rising sea levels that threaten low-lying states like Delaware,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, another major proponent of the corps in the Senate.
House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, whose committee has purview over writing the legislation for part of the corps (and who also has House jurisdiction over AmeriCorps), envisions the Climate Corps as a workforce-training program run through long-standing Department of Labor programs.
“We’re talking about projects, solar panels, floodwalls, a lot of things that take a lot of high-skilled workers,” the Virginia Democrat told CNN. “And the AmeriCorps model, where people come in and out for a year of service, really doesn’t produce that kind of workforce.”
Raúl Grijalva, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, told CNN that while he agrees with Scott, he’s also amenable to the Senate’s AmeriCorps vision as long as it truly addresses climate change.
“I don’t just want a bunch of students preparing charity boxes,” the Arizona Democrat told CNN. “I want this huge investment to go to the issue of climate change in the Southwest, go to the issue of extreme heat, the issue of clean water and clean air. We can’t lose sight of that, otherwise it won’t have the impact.”