State of the Planet

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It’s Time to Build a Civilian Climate Corps

During the New Deal’s first winter, the nation’s cities were filled with unemployed men desperate for work. In one of FDR’s most popular initiatives, a Civilian Conservation Corps was created, initially employing 400,000 unemployed workers on projects designed to build and maintain America’s parks. According to the National Park Service’s website:

“The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established by Congress on March 31, 1933, provided jobs for young, unemployed men during the Great Depression. Over its 9-year lifespan, the CCC employed about 3 million men nationwide. The CCC made valuable contributions to forest management, flood control, conservation projects, and the development of state and national parks, forests, and historic sites. In return, the men received the benefits of education and training, a small paycheck, and the dignity of honest work… The CCC sought to provide the maximum opportunity for labor at a minimum cost for materials and equipment. With little more than strong backs, shovels, and picks, the CCC built roads, trails, culverts, and structures. When building structures, the CCC utilized native materials, such as the local sandstone, which they quarried themselves with star drills, sledge hammers, muscle, and sweat.”

Nearly a century later, our technology and needs are different, but a program to put young peoples’ bodies and minds to work addressing the climate crisis is long overdue. We don’t have the level of unemployment of the Great Depression, but instead, we have a crisis of purpose and the need for a nation-unifying mission. While some of the ideologues in Congress don’t think we have a climate crisis, nearly every American under thirty years of age is quite certain we are in the midst of one. Currently, Democrats in Congress are trying to decide if the proposed Civilian Climate Corps should be an expansion of the Americorps program or an expansion of current apprenticeship programs largely managed out of the Department of Labor. While details of the bill are still being negotiated, Lisa Freidman of the New York Times recently reported that:

“Momentum for a Civilian Climate Corps has been steadily building since President Biden called for its creation in March…Supporters of the reimagined corps said they intend to ensure diversity among workers and managers, as well as a $15 per hour wage and health care benefits. They envision climate corps workers installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings and providing water and other supplies during heat waves and storms.”

Forestry work could be undertaken to reduce climate-accelerated fires in the American west, and a Climate Corps could work on a wide variety of projects to help mitigate and adapt to climate change.

While some Republicans in Congress worry that a Climate Corps would end up doing community organizing and snooping on people wasting natural resources, a well-designed program could provide important climate services and job training for the emerging green economy. Reducing methane leaks and emissions from fossil fuel facilities, farms and landfills will take skill and hard work. Installing energy-efficient equipment, solar arrays, and electric grid upgrades are all jobs that will require workers and managers over the next several decades. Forest management, cleaning urban storm drains, planting trees and both building and maintaining green infrastructure are activities that would benefit from a mission-driven workforce. On-the-job training and skill certification could be an integral part of a Civilian Climate Corps.

In my view, the Climate Corps training mission should extend beyond skill training to formal coursework in environmental science, engineering, and management. As an environmental educator, I would also propose that America’s universities be asked to provide access to environmental college courses that would allow Corps members to earn credits toward a college degree. College graduates in the Corps could be given access to graduate courses. Universities participating in the program would be required to provide substantial tuition scholarships, and the government would cover the remaining costs of tuition with grants rather than loans. A growing number of environmental sustainability courses are now offered in the evening and online and so formal coursework need not interfere with the day-to-day work of the Climate Corps.

It will take a generation-long national effort to adapt to climate change and mitigate greenhouse emissions. But the organization of a massive government program like the Climate Corps is a management challenge that requires careful design, a realistic operational strategy, and high-quality leadership. When John Kennedy created the Peace Corps, he appointed Sargent Shriver, a high profile and high-quality leader (who happened to be JFK’s brother-in-law), to run the program. President Biden needs to find someone similar to run the Climate Corps. In addition, we need to recognize that, unlike the 1930s, most of the work now performed by America’s governments is undertaken by private contractors or involves a public-private partnership. The Climate Corps needs to be built on partnerships with private companies and local nonprofits. Companies that install charging stations or solar arrays should be offered free labor in exchange for job training and hiring preferences for Corps graduates. Nonprofits that are engaged in climate services should be offered the same deal. Labor unions must also be partners in this great national initiative.

It is essential that the Climate Corps be well managed and avoid any taint of corruption or political bias. The definition of success and specific performance metrics should either be included in the legislation or developed immediately by the Biden Administration. These metrics should be simple and easily understood. Performance indicators could include: Number of recruits, number of graduates, the employment rate of graduates, number of projects, greenhouse gasses reduced, projected and actual dollar savings from adaptation projects, acres of green infrastructure built, number of trees planted, number of forest acres pruned, number of solar arrays installed and so on. The program should publicize its results and control the narrative of its mission and impact on the planet and its volunteers.

While we are not suffering massive unemployment in America, there are communities where unemployment and underemployment are high. Recruitment for the Climate Corps should focus on those communities, and it is important that the program include a diverse population. It should be diverse in every way: race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, and income. America’s institutions, like the nation itself, are becoming more fragmented. The sheer gap between rich and poor continues to grow and institutions like public schools and the military are avoided by rich people and no longer play the role of introducing Americans to each other. That means that young people from wealthy families must also be recruited to the Climate Corps, and work teams should be designed for diversity.

The Climate Corps should be built to bring Americans together to do battle with climate change. It should be a meeting place for young people from every corner of America. While contributing labor and idealism to the war against climate change, it could provide a common experience for Americans of every background. President Biden understands that mitigating and adapting to climate change will create economic opportunity and stimulate economic growth. But it can also help rebuild understanding among young people across our country. A shared mission and an opportunity to develop a professional network could provide long-term benefits to graduates and to the nation as we address the climate crisis.

As divided as this country seems, Americans do find a way to come together during disasters and crises. When people are suffering from floods and fires, Americans come to each other’s assistance. No one cares about politics when they are saving a family in danger; we are just people helping other people. The climate crisis is understood by young people as a threat to their future. Let’s build an institution that allows them to take their energy and idealism in a positive direction to help address this crisis. In the spring of 1933 and winter of 1934, the workers recruited to the CCC might have become radical, angry foot soldiers for an insurrection. Instead, they became valued and even heroic workers building America’s national and state parks. Let’s convert climate protest and fear into teamwork and learning that can build our economy while reducing global warming. Let’s build an American Civilian Climate Corps.


Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Alberto Larotonda
2 years ago

As a participant in US Youth Conservation Corps in the 1970’s, I see the great value and potential of a Civilian Climate Corps. It’s structure would have be carefully assembled to allow results to be measured, instead of fluff and political hype, typical of many government run programs.