How a Climate Corps Could Put Youth to Work in Greening America

As youth unemployment soars and people inside and outside of government finally begin to confront our climate crisis, numerous proposals have cropped up to resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — a Great Depression-era program that had young men work on natural resources projects across the country. Joe Biden’s campaign has one plan, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force has another. Think tanks have written a couple. And Congress has produced at least seven that I could find.

Clearly, the chances of a revival of a federal CCC are tied to the outcome of the upcoming election. But this widely shared focus on bringing back the CCC to combat climate change isn’t surprising. American youth care deeply about this fight. Creating thousands or even millions of jobs to restore our natural environment is both romantic and futurist. California, in fact, just announced its own program. And now, as the pandemic has wrought the greatest economic destruction since the Great Depression, it makes sense that some look to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effective public jobs programs as a potential solution.

But with so many competing proposals, what should a modern-day Civilian Climate Corps look like?

Looking back, the original CCC, which ran from 1933 to 1942, was FDR’s first attempt at directly creating jobs for a great number of people, predating the better-known and far larger Works Progress Administration. Although smaller, the CCC placed hundreds of thousands of unmarried men aged 18 to 25 in residential, quasi-military work sites to improve parks and forests on federal lands, eventually employing more than 3 million men.

The CCC produced results quickly. FDR proposed the program to Congress as a collaboration between the Interior, Agriculture, Labor, and War Departments on March 21, 1933 and signed it into law 10 days later, mere weeks after his March 4 inauguration. The first participant enrolled the following week, and the first camp opened on April 17. More than 100,000 volunteers were working in June, and 300,000 were spread across 1,500 camps by August.

Most Climate Corps proposals focus on employing young people from places that have suffered environmental injustice.

Corps members, who came from families on government relief in urban and rural areas across the nation, planted billions of trees, fought forest fires, cleaned up historic battlefields, and built and maintained new roads, trails, flood barriers, fisheries, bridges, shelters, recreational buildings, and campgrounds. The CCC sent $25 of the $30 a month volunteers earned back to their families. The program was extraordinarily popular with the public, but not just because it created jobs. These improvements to federal lands established the national parks system as we know it today, allowing millions more Americans access to the outdoors. Recent research also suggests the original CCC benefited those who served in it tremendously, helping to boost their lifetime earnings and long-term health.

However, like other New Deal programs, the original CCC perpetuated racism. As Nick Taylor writes in his history of New Deal jobs programs, “While almost one enrollee in ten was black, a number reflecting their percentage of the population, black Americans had been harder hit by the depression and were thus underrepresented in the CCC as a percentage of the poor.” The CCC originally had integrated camps outside of the South, but the program eventually gave in to racist pressure and segregated Black participants into their own work sites.

Segregated Black workers in the CCC. Photo: USFWS

Most current Climate Corps proposals, in contrast, focus on employing young people from places that have suffered environmental injustice, especially communities of color, and placing Corps members in those communities to mitigate these injustices. The plans differ significantly in the number, type, and geographic placement of jobs they seek to create, and this is where effective policy design choices are crucial.

Having reviewed all the proposals, I recommend four guidelines to maximize the positive impact of any new Climate Corps that is created by federal, state, or local policymakers.

Leverage existing AmeriCorps programs to quickly grow a Climate Corps.

Economists generally agree that the Great Recession stimulus — the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — reduced unemployment, but the years of slow job growth that came after its passage also suggest that it was too small. Millions of people — especially young people and people of color — need work now. To rapidly grow a Corps large enough to meaningfully address both youth unemployment and climate change, policymakers should launch it through an expansion of AmeriCorps, strengthening that federal public service program while building on its benefits for participants and taxpayers.

A new Climate Corps would require AmeriCorps programs to hire additional staff with specific knowledge of environmental management work, but would nonetheless make use of AmeriCorps’ existing infrastructure, its partnerships with numerous conservation nonprofits and government agencies, and its recruitment and job placement expertise. Indeed, AmeriCorps already supports tens of thousands of young people each year while matching them with jobs, so it would be equipped to get the Corps up and running quickly. And, as with existing AmeriCorps programs, Climate Corps projects could be selected through applications from nonprofits and various levels of government.

A Climate Corps is best suited to create certain types of jobs.

Building a clean energy economy will require new jobs everywhere, but not all of these jobs are well-suited to a Climate Corps. Any rapid employment program for young people beginning their careers and created under AmeriCorps would likely be a one- to two-year commitment, meaning that a Corps would be best positioned to deliver on short-term projects that don’t require significant upfront training. These might include native grassland and coastal ecosystem restoration; removal of invasive species and restoration of native species; improving wildlife corridors; building hiking trails and other recreational wilderness amenities; irrigation system repair; disaster preparedness work, including community engagement and education; and forest and tree restoration and management, including in urban areas.

A Corps should not fill high-skill and private sector jobs, as some proposals suggest. Corps participants could not easily upgrade our electricity grid, install rural broadband, develop high-speed rail, or provide climate policy advice to elected officials — all ideas mentioned in existing proposals — because these positions require substantial training and specialized skills which most new Corps members would be unlikely to have.

Moreover, a Corps that invests heavily in low- to middle-skill green construction work such as installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, or creating urban bike lanes could box out and slow the growth of the small and mid-sized construction and construction-adjacent businesses that would normally do these jobs. These companies, which will be essential to completing the work needed for any clean energy transition, would be better served by receiving government contracts, grants, or subsidies that allow them to make their own hiring decisions, as most existing climate action plans propose. The economic strength of fossil fuel industries has already led to a rollback of clean energy policies in several states. Ensuring that new climate programs do not undermine the far less powerful clean energy sector and its allies will be essential to setting a more environmentally sound policy trajectory and sticking to it.

While a Corps should not include all types of green jobs, it must be large enough to meet our enormous economic and environmental challenges. Researchers have conducted detailed analyses of how many jobs decarbonizing our energy system would create — 25 million in the near-term — but no comparably comprehensive analysis exists for the number of environmental management jobs best-suited to a Corps. What we do know is that the maintenance backlog of the National Parks Service is in the billions of dollars; that the U.S. has suitable land for an additional 60 billion trees; and that wetlands — which yield tremendous carbon capture, flood protection, and biodiversity benefits — occupy just half of their historical acreage. Climate Corps jobs should be focused on maintenance and restoration programs that address these needs. To ensure a Corp’s effectiveness, clear and transparent goals and performance metrics around job creation, project progress and completion, and alumni success would be essential.

A Climate Corps can prepare participants for other jobs they can move to after the program is completed.

While a Corps wouldn’t be well-situated to complete projects that require substantial specialized skills, a program could train its members to perform these jobs after they complete their service. Beyond providing education awards for future tuition costs as existing AmeriCorps programs do, a Climate Corps could offer a menu of options for industry-recognized green job certifications as well as the schedule flexibility to earn them before graduating from the program.

For example, a widely accepted North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners credential earned at a community college could help a Corps graduate become a solar installer. Such a job would pay enough that, combined with an education award more generous than the one currently offered to AmeriCorps participants, a graduate could earn a livable wage while simultaneously attending college without having to take on significant debt.

As some proposals suggest, a Corps could also set participants up for green career pathways by partnering with labor unions, green businesses, technical schools, and community colleges to place people in jobs, training, or educational programs when their Corps work ends.

Design a program with equity at its core

There is a direct line from our nation’s sordid history of environmental racism to the hugely disproportionate number of deaths communities of color have suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic. While a truly equitable Corps would be no substitute for more dramatic action to undo pervasive structural racism, it could help ameliorate it.

A Corps should prioritize hiring people from frontline communities — especially those that are predominantly Black, Indigenous, or people of color — and developing projects in those communities. This geographic targeting of Corps member placement could help protect the people and places most vulnerable to climate change. Planting trees and creating parks in formerly redlined neighborhoods, for example, would not only give people more opportunity to enjoy the outdoors safely, but could reduce excess heat created by concrete and asphalt. It would also bring immediate public health benefits. Improving wetlands could likewise reduce coastal flooding, which disproportionately impacts lower-income communities of color.

A new Climate Corps could be launched through the existing AmeriCorps program. Photo: BLM/FLICKR

A Corps could also give priority to applicants from other marginalized groups that face discrimination in the job market, such as women, LGBTQ+ people or the formerly incarcerated. Prioritizing women in a new Corps would be a marked contrast to the Depression-era CCC, which excluded all women.

Existing AmeriCorps programs have an annual living allowance that ranges between about $5,000 to $25,000, as well as an education award worth up to $6,000, which can be used for college or university tuition. Such a low allowance makes it difficult for young people without significant family resources to sign up. A Climate Corps that prizes equity must reduce barriers to entry by paying a livable wage and providing quality health insurance and an education award that covers the cost of attending a local public university for at least the duration of a volunteer’s Corps service.

Our nation is being ravaged by wildfires, hurricanes, and mass unemployment. A new Climate Corps could lead in restoring our economy and natural environment. Yet it must be designed not only to support worthy green projects, but to set up those who serve for future success. That will lead to a future that is not just greener, but more just, too.

This piece first appeared at Yale Environment 360 and is republished here with permission.

Top photo: CCC camp/Wikipedia



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