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President Joe Biden envisions putting thousands to work addressing the effects of climate change in a revamped New Deal-style public service program.
White House officials, including national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, say funding to establish a Civilian Climate Corps is a must-have in the Democrats-only spending bill to follow the bipartisan infrastructure deal. The idea is popular among many Democratic lawmakers, with several proposals gaining traction on the Hill from both left-wing and centrist members.
The Civilian Climate Corps is modeled after the New Deal-era program that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established in the 1930s, which employed millions of young men to improve U.S. public lands, forests, and parks.
Biden’s and Democrats’ vision would revamp that program to fight climate change. It would put people to work weatherizing and retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient, managing forest lands to prevent wildfires, installing rooftop solar panels, and restoring coastal habitats.
Nonetheless, Democratic lawmakers and climate activists say Biden is proposing far too little to support the scale of the program needed, both to curb climate change and to employ those out of work from the pandemic. Centrist and left-wing Democrats alike say the program should be funded at a level multiple times that of the $10 billion Biden is proposing.
“I don’t even think that’s in the right ballpark,” said Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at the New College of Florida. He estimates Biden’s $10 billion would employ roughly 25,000 workers each year for five years. That is one-sixtieth the size of the Roosevelt-era program when accounting for population size.
By contrast, liberal lawmakers Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are proposing roughly $130 billion for a Civilian Climate Corps. Paul estimates that amount would directly employ 1.5 million workers over a five-year time period.
“Sometimes, when folks say, ‘Oh, this is too ambitious,’ or, ‘This is too big, and it’s too unreasonable,’ then we reiterate that this world that we’re fighting for has already been here,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a June 23 briefing on the Civilian Climate Corps concept.
“The FDR-era program employed over 2 million Americans in less than 10 years,” she added. “A quarter-million young men were mobilized three months after it was created.”
Biden could find it tricky, though, to push a higher level of spending for the Corps. His team is outlining an aggressive set of climate priorities for the Democrats-only bill, likely to be advanced under a special legislative process called budget reconciliation.
McCarthy said Wednesday that the administration’s top two priorities are a suite of clean energy tax credits, totaling roughly $300 billion, and a requirement that utilities reach carbon-free power by 2035, known as a clean electricity standard. Those could be a tough sell even for some centrist Democrats, such as Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joe Manchin of coal-heavy West Virginia.
Nonetheless, climate activists say the Civilian Climate Corps has the potential to garner bipartisan support. Polling from the liberal think tank Data for Progress found 65% of Republican voters and 87% of Democratic voters back the concept. Half of voters under 45 polled by the group said they would consider working for a Civilian Climate Corps.
“Having these visible and popular programs makes passing a reconciliation bill something that would be incredibly politically popular and necessary given the state of the climate crisis already,” said Becca Ellison, deputy policy director for Evergreen Action.
The Civilian Climate Corps proposal faces more challenges than politics, however. Thus far, there are differing visions for the program, and there are open questions about how to build the internal government capacity to support it and what the focus should be.
“If we put tens of billions of dollars into a program, we better know what the hell we’re doing, or else it will backfire,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the June 23 congressional briefing.
For example, Democrats’ proposals in Congress differ in whether they would build the Civilian Climate Corps out from existing federal corps programs such as AmeriCorps or establish it as its own separate entity.
Democrats and climate activists are also keen to ensure the climate program is inclusive, pays at least $15 per hour, and creates a pipeline to transition people to permanent jobs.
“If you go back and look at the history of the CCC program under FDR, of course there was some racial biases and discrimination that was a part of that program,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. For example, black corps members were often given the most “backbreaking” jobs, and women were excluded entirely from the program, he said.
Part of what Democrats and activists are advocating for to ensure the program is diverse is higher wages, of at least $15 per hour, and worker benefits such as healthcare and child care. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, said he was paid just $660 a month when he worked for the AmeriCorps and that he had to pay for his room and board.
“So, I went in the hole to do it,” Heinrich said during the June 23 briefing. “That’s a recipe for not having the kind of diversity that we expect today.”
Pinning down a specific design for the program will be crucial for its longevity. Still, there’s no shortage of projects that a climate corps could work on, according to Ellison. She said there is a significant backlog of projects at places such as the Forest Service and AmeriCorps that haven’t been completed “because there has not been adequate funding for the labor to do them.”
Ultimately, bipartisanship is also critical for the program to last, Ali said.
“We’ve got to make sure there’s real long-term investment here that will help build the capabilities and confidence in the program,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for folks on both sides of the aisle to come together and say, ‘This is something we’re going to invest in long term, for more than a decade,’ so we know that not only the resources are there, but the infrastructure is going to be there.”