November 09, 2023
Without a doubt, the Biden administration has done more to address climate change and its impacts than any other administration. The nearly $400 billion in investments to reduce the production of greenhouse gasses in the Inflation Reduction Act has received attention. But the $200 billion in “green” infrastructure investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has gone largely unnoticed. A more climate-friendly economy will require more use of low carbon footprint trains and buses, more electric vehicle charging stations, and a stronger electric grid. These are among the “green” investments made in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The administration hoped to do even more. One of the items cut in negotiations with conservatives in Congress was Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps for young people to work in jobs shoring up our environmental defenses against climate change. Biden cannot claim to be the only one advocating for this idea. Several members of Congress have proposed similar climate corps, including Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The administration has revived its climate corps idea under the name American Climate Corps, a new program launched this September. The American Climate Corps will provide jobs for 20,000 youth to work in clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience. Because conservatives in Congress have blocked funding for the program, it is smaller than it could have been.
The administration has wisely drawn on states to help bolster the program. Ten states have established or plan to establish their own climate corps programs. Many of these states will collaborate with the American Climate Corps.
It is important to acknowledge that the climate corps idea was inspired by the Great Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC built and improved many of the nation’s forests and parks. Maryland State Forester Fred W. Besley stated, “Before the start of the CCC, little or no money was available for the proper protection of and development of our 60,000 acres of State forests.” The CCC was truly the first climate corps because it planted millions of trees, cut fire breaks, and prevented soil erosion. Many of the CCC’s activities helped to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
While Congress should adequately fund the American Climate Corps, all states should also have their own climate corps program. Climate change is causing harm in all states, and all states should be responding. For example, non-native grasses contributed to the devastating wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii. Two years before the fire, the County of Maui, where Lahaina resides, identified that climate change plus non-native grasses would lead to “big, destructive fires.” Unfortunately, there was no Hawaii Climate Corps put to work removing these non-native grasses and replacing them with native plants as called for in the County’s wildfire plan. Lahaina paid the price. In every state, there is likely some similar climate change environmental need being neglected that could be addressed with a climate corps.
One problem with the state climate corps programs is that some have unnecessary educational requirements for participating. California has a climate corps that requires an associate’s degree or relevant experience, as well as strong written communication skills. North Carolina’s climate corps encourages recent graduates and established professionals to apply. The Minnesota climate corps requires that one be a high school graduate. It is a grave mistake to impose these types of educational and skill requirements for jobs that do not need them.
While some climate corps jobs may require a high school diploma or a college education, many jobs likely do not. Planting trees and other vegetation, removing non-native grasses, cleaning streams, constructing parks, and other climate-corps projects have activities that do not require advanced education. It helps no one to pointlessly exclude individuals who need jobs from job opportunities.
Figure 1 shows that youth who have not completed high school have the highest unemployment rate. It is more than twice the rate for youth with a college degree. It is harmful to society to prevent these individuals from becoming productive individuals. If there are jobs that are suitable for them, they should have access to them. More generally, all these youth unemployment rates show that there is still a need for more youth job opportunities at all educational levels.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, the inspiration for the current climate corps programs, did not have comparable educational and skills requirements to some of today’s state climate corps. In fact, the CCC provided classes to allow young men to continue their education. More than 50,000 young men learned to read and write in the CCC. As the forester Joseph J. Davis observed, “The genius of the CCC was that they combined conservation of natural resources with conservation of our human resources.” Today’s state climate corps should aim to do the same. They should not impose unnecessary requirements for participation that could contribute to a waste of human resources.