On Wednesday, President Biden used his executive authority to launch the American Climate Corps, which will employ and train 20,000 young people in the work of climate resilience.
Similar but more modest than the famed CCC — the Civilian Conservation Corps founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 during the Great Depression — the ACC can provide young people with long-term job skills while accelerating the country’s transition to renewable energy.
Biden had hoped that an updated, climate-focused version of FDR’s corps would be a provision in the “Build Back Better” legislative effort he introduced early in his term. That agenda was watered down, with Climate Corps among the casualties. Republicans and some Democrats — particularly Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — criticized it as a waste of money and “pure socialist wish-fulfillment.”
However, the Corps’ enemies never questioned the Corps’ effectiveness. That’s because California demonstrated the value of a modern CCC years ago.
The California Conservation Corps was founded in 1976 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown currently has 1,634 members, mostly between the ages of 18 and 29, who typically serve for about a year. They are on the front lines fighting climate-induced wildfires and floods, restoring riverine habitats, “managing” forests, building and maintaining wilderness trails, and retrofitting homes, schools, and businesses with solar panels and other forms of clean energy under government contracts.
The Corps evaluates its successes based on a number of metrics. Since its inception, for example, its members have planted 24.6 million trees, improved national and state parks through 11 million hours of work, and filled more than 3.5 million sandbags during floods and storms.
It’s paid off for California, but it’s also personal. If new corps members do not have a high school diploma (approximately 15 to 20% do not), they must obtain one through the corps’ school partnerships. This schooling adds 10 hours to their 40-hour week and opens up new opportunities for more training and scholarships. California Conservation Corps graduates went on to become professional firefighters, hydrologists, electricians and park rangers.
In recent years, I’ve watched corps crews led by Cal Fire in Butte County take chainsaws to burned “danger trees” in a state park east of Lake Tahoe, clear road obstacles and cut fire lines during a storm.
One of the chainsaw crew members, Elizabeth Wing, who was 21 when we met, summed up her experience with a joke: “We will definitely keep our promise,” referring to the guarantee contained in the Corps motto : “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more!” The “more” in the motto has a different effect on every corps member.
“I was just moving from job to job, wanting to be part of something bigger than myself,” remembers 26-year-old firefighter Luie Valez. “I haven’t looked back since.”
“I’ve had a lot of crappy jobs, but not this one,” agreed Martin Castellon, who grew up in Tijuana and San Diego and spent his 26th birthday shoveling snow for the Corps at his residential center in Tahoe.
“The thing is, it’s not a bunch of troubled kids like a lot of people think,” adds John Alviso, 24, another firefighter and a former Army reservist. “They are people who want to learn and have a career and are willing to work hard for it.”
Bruce Saito, the California Corps director, expects his organization and more than 150 similar organizations across the country to “benefit from Biden’s incredible move and actions.” He anticipates that “earmarked grants will be provided to each state to strengthen and advance the work, (and) enrollment opportunities for thousands of young people who want to advocate for and address climate issues, not just for California.”
Biden’s use of executive power to revive his Climate Corps idea is partly a response to the climate fears and frustrations of young voters. When he gave the green light to the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska earlier this year, there was an immediate backlash from young voters and environmentalists. The nationwide ACC effort, which so far consists of a recruiting website, could help motivate a cohort Biden desperately needs in 2024.
On the other hand, the ACC is guaranteed to receive continued criticism from the same forces that removed it from the Inflation Reduction Act last year. Finally, Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) claimed during debates over the legislation that the corps idea was a way to “bully every state into becoming more and more like California.”
Replace the word “bully” with “inspire” and I have to hope that’s exactly what happens.
David Helvarg is a writer; executive director of Blue Frontier, a marine policy group; and co-host of “Rising Tide: The Ocean Podcast.”