On a week when tens of thousands of people took to the streets ahead of the United Nations General Assembly to renew calls for climate action, President Joe Biden revived one of the most popular platforms of his original plan for tackling the crisis.
The White House announced Wednesday it was launching the American Climate Corps, seeking to put more than 20,000 young people to work in clean energy and climate resilience jobs, particularly in communities of color.
As a candidate in 2020, Biden pledged to create such a New Deal-style public works program as an integral part of his “Build Back Better” program of tackling the struggling economy and climate change at the same time. But his original $2 trillion agenda had to be greatly scaled back to make it through Congress, particularly to win the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from the fossil fuel-reliant state of West Virginia, who wanted to spend far less.
A provision for a $10 billion Civilian Climate Corps was jettisoned on the way to what became Biden’s signature climate legislation last year, the Inflation Reduction Act, known as the IRA. Although all of the details were not immediately available—including total anticipated funding— Biden’s new American Climate Corps appears to pull together workplace development funding that has been scattered throughout previous legislation, including the record $370 billion spending on the clean energy transition included in the IRA.
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For example, the Department of Energy’s existing Career Skills Training Program announced a new $10 million in grants for students to receive classroom instruction and on-the-job training for certification in installing energy efficient building technologies.
And the AmeriCorps community service program, which marks its 30th anniversary this year, launched a five-year, $15 million initiative with the U.S. Forest Service to engage young adults in wildland fire prevention, reforestation and other natural and cultural resource management projects. The program is expected to employ 80 people aged 18-26, providing them with compensation packages equivalent to $15 an hour, including lodging, transportation and other benefits.
Other areas where the White House aims to deploy Climate Corps participants are “bolstering community resilience, deploying clean energy…and advancing environmental justice,” the White House said in a prepared release.
The Biden administration also is relying on states and the private sector to round out the Climate Corps. In addition to the five states that already had their own Climate Corps programs—California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan and Washington—the White House announced that five new states—Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, North Carolina and Maryland—were moving forward with state-based climate corps funded through public-private partnerships.
All of those states are led by Democratic governors except for Utah, where Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has in the past year had to deal with unprecedented drought and water shortages. State and local governments and utilities throughout the West are in need of personnel to help address infrastructure woes that are increasingly acute due to climate change. And Utah already has a long-standing conservation corps that works on climate-related issues such as habitat restoration and wildfire fuels reduction.
When Biden first began talking about a Civilian Climate Corps, polling indicated that the idea had bipartisan appeal. But Republicans and centrist Democrats like Manchin never got behind increased federal spending for such a program. Also, political polarization around climate change appeared to further erode any hope for getting a substantial Climate Corps program through Congress.
But polling released early this year by the progressive think tank Data For Progress showed that a public works climate program remained broadly popular, supported by 88 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents. And more Republicans (42 percent) supported a Civilian Climate Corps than opposed it (41 percent), with 16 percent unsure.
Earlier this week, the two members of Congress most associated with the Green New Deal and other progressive climate action ideas, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Biden urging him to use executive authority to establish a climate corps.
Biden decided to do exactly that, drawing on existing funding and legal authority Congress already has given to agencies. That could make the American Climate Corps difficult for foes to challenge, unless they show the new climate efforts overstepped that authority. The agencies, the Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Labor Departments, AmeriCorps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, will collaborate in putting the American Climate Corps into action.
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Biden’s move comes a year before an election in which it is clear he will need to mobilize young voters, many of whom have been disappointed by what they view as backtracking on climate, particularly in allowing new oil and gas leasing on federal land and in the Alaskan Arctic.
In the 2020 election, voters aged 18 to 29, especially young voters of color, propelled Biden to victory in several battleground states, including Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by the Tufts University Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, which has criticized Biden on oil and gas policy even as it has pushed him for creation of a civilian climate corps over the past three years, praised the American Climate Corps move, and even spoke at the White House press call announcing the initiative.
“We turned a generational rallying cry into a real jobs program that will put a new generation to work stopping the climate crisis,” Prakash said. “Young people everywhere should feel empowered by this victory and continue demanding the change we need.”
Staff Writer Wyatt Myskow contributed to this report.