On March 31, President Joe Biden unveiled the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion program that aims to strengthen the United States through investments in a range of broadly defined infrastructure priorities, including physical infrastructure, manufacturing, the caregiving economy, and climate resilience. Nestled within the 25-page proposal is a deceptively short bullet point dedicating $10 billion to “put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.” While the Civilian Climate Corps may appear small on paper, if developed to its full potential it could be the centerpiece of an ambitious agenda to address the interlocking crises of our time: the COVID-19 pandemic, economic inequality, racial injustice, and climate change.
Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps is part of a long American tradition of national service programs and evokes memories of a familiar initiative with a similar name - Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. With the United States facing a 25.6% unemployment rate in 1933, Roosevelt’s CCC was established to employ mainly young, unmarried men. Corps members signed on for at least one 6-month duty period and were paid a monthly salary of $30.00. After an initial inspection, members were transported to CCC camps scattered across all 50 states to complete natural resource conservation projects, including road and bridge construction, erosion control, flood control, and stream improvement. Called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” CCC members planted over 2 billion trees and built critical infrastructure to repair the damage done by unsustainable agricultural and logging operations. In addition, members could participate in educational programs and vocational training, thereby preparing themselves for employment after their terms of CCC service ended.
However, despite the fact that the CCC achieved significant success in addressing its goals of resource conservation and economic uplift, in practice it reproduced existing societal inequities and white supremacist economic structures. Over the program’s duration, the CCC employed almost 3 million men--but only 8,500 women. The program also failed to provide opportunities for African Americans. Despite an official ban on racial discrimination contained within the program’s establishing legislation, most Black recruits were forced to serve in segregated units and were denied opportunities to advance within the organization. Racial enrollment caps were implemented to ensure the program’s membership was proportional to the racial breakdown of American society. However, this hobbled the equitability of its relief impacts, as African Americans faced far higher unemployment rates than white Americans during the Depression. Thus, while Roosevelt’s CCC provided desperately needed employment to millions and completed a staggering array of conservation efforts, its structural shortcomings prevented its benefits from reaching many of the Americans who needed it the most.
Proposed Policy Frameworks
Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps should learn from the original CCC’s failings in order to create an impactful program that supports broader efforts to meaningfully address pandemic relief, climate mitigation, and racial and economic inequality. The paramount crises of our time demand policy responses on a Rooseveltian scale: for example, the unemployment rate more than tripled during the first several months after initial pandemic shutdowns began in March 2020. Despite some improvement, the rate currently remains around 50% higher than pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic’s public health and economic effects, exacerbated by existing structural racism, have also disproportionately impacted racial and ethnic minorities. Furthermore, the pandemic is occurring under the backdrop of the rapidly intensifying climate crisis, which itself disproportionately harms minority and low-income Americans as well as countries in the Global South. A robust, equitable Civilian Climate Corps is urgently needed to provide employment and training to the most vulnerable Americans and accelerate the transition to a green economy.
While Biden’s brief proposal has brought renewed publicity to the idea, a variety of Congressional leaders and NGOs have already developed much more detailed frameworks for an effective, equitable CCC. The climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, founded by former staffers from Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential campaign, recently released a policy briefing outlining potential CCC funding systems and operations. Evergreen’s framework contains proposals such as the following: that a future CCC employ 1.5 million members over the next 5 years to retrofit buildings and improve energy efficiency, support local climate adaptation efforts, install clean energy infrastructure, and construct massive carbon sequestration projects.
A different outline from Chicago nonprofit Openlands centers around urban and suburban CCC projects including “brownfield remediation, the greening of schoolyards, the repair of biking and walking trails, and the planting of urban vegetable gardens and orchards.” The Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act of 2021, introduced by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would locate a new CCC within the existing AmeriCorps service program. Their proposal would also provide federal grants to scale up existing state and local conservation corps and take on initiatives to “reduce carbon emissions, enable a transition to renewable energy, build healthier and more resilient communities, implement conservation projects with proven climate benefits, and help communities recover from climate disasters.”
Most of the above proposals aim to provide Corps members with a combination of living wages, educational opportunities, and dedicated pathways toward future careers (especially in union jobs). This would provide invaluable assistance to Americans still reeling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare a generation of workers for well-paying green economy jobs. However, the enacted CCC should structure itself to ensure that it provides equitable relief for vulnerable groups and addresses the uneven distribution of environmental costs. The Evergreen proposal emphasizes the importance of grassroots hiring, where Corps members help complete climate-related projects in or near their own communities. Combined with dedicated outreach and partnerships with local community stakeholders, the CCC could thus help support “grassroots-driven climate action in under-resourced communities.”
Equity in project assignment is also paramount to address the legacy of environmental racism in the United States. As The Century Foundation puts it, centuries of environmental racism through practices such as redlining, industrial siting, and intentional political disempowerment mean that “Communities of color...end up concentrated in areas that face greater environmental harms and are more vulnerable to natural disasters, while the forces of residential segregation create systemic barriers that make it more difficult for individuals to move to less environmentally harmful areas.” Federal CCC projects should address these systemic harms by prioritizing conservation and adaptation projects which uplift historically disadvantaged communities, as they are at the highest risk for climate-related damages in the coming decades.
Furthermore, while the Biden administration’s proposed $10 billion CCC price tag may seem steep on paper, it may in fact be a significant underinvestment compared to the magnitude of climate change’s economic costs on the US. A 2017 report estimated that climate change-exacerbated extreme weather events and the health impacts of fossil fuel-related air pollution may cost the US economy more than $360 billion annually over the coming decade. Propublica estimates that, in the next 30 years, 162 million Americans will weather a climate-exacerbated decline in their environmental quality due to rising temperatures and growing water scarcity. The United States deserves policy solutions that meet the magnitude of the moment--a $10 billion CCC, as part of a comprehensive nationwide climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, should be a launching point for further action to guard against climate change’s most devastating effects.
The original CCC and other New Deal programs, despite their shortcomings, fundamentally reshaped the American economy and society for the better. Policymakers today are grappling with a similar “rendezvous with destiny.” By drawing inspiration from the New Deal’s successes while learning from its failures, policymakers can address the most severe confluence of crises in generations, and in doing so make the United States a more sustainable and just nation for decades to come.
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