A group of men planting trees during a Civilian Conservation Corps project on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota
A group of men planting trees during a Civilian Conservation Corps project on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota (Photo: MPI/Getty)

We Need a Civilian Climate Corps to Take on Today’s Crises

Democrats in Congress are pushing for a federal jobs program that would tackle climate, land use, infrastructure, and more. Here’s why it’s so urgent.

A group of men planting trees during a Civilian Conservation Corps project on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota

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Colorado representative Joe Neguse says the reality of climate change hit hard when he was in the burn zone of the Cameron Peak Fire last year. He was wading through the wreckage of the largest fire in the state’s history with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Colorado senator Michael Bennett. It had ripped through Neguse’s district, which spans north from the Denver suburbs to the Wyoming border, and burned from August to December, destroying ecosystems, displacing residents, and clogging critical downstream reservoirs with downed trees, sediment, and ash. Staring at the charred slash, the group realized the extent of the harm and how much work it would take to repair the damage, mitigate future burns, and bring back local recreation.

In February, Neguse and Oregon senator Ron Wyden introduced the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, which laid out a $9 billion plan, based broadly on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, that would create jobs in trail building, fire mitigation, and recreation on public land, as well as build crucial environmental infrastructure.

“The thought process was that we could reimagine the 1930s CCC for the 21st century,” Neguse told me. “Our generation is facing a unique confluence of challenges: pandemic, economic disruption, and the existential threat of climate change.”

The push for the plan was also coming from the top down. On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order committing his administration to form a Civilian Climate Corps and earmarked $10 billion for it in his American Jobs Plan.

Legislators got to work trying to figure out how best to do that. In April, Neguse and Virginia representative Abigail Spanberger, along with a group of senators, pivoted off the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act and introduced a new bill, the Civilian Climate Corps Act, which outlined a corps whose responsibilities would include “conservation and restoration on public lands, assistance for frontline communities adapting to climate change, natural climate solutions, replacement of vulnerable infrastructure, protection of biodiversity and ecological resilience.”

Later that month, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced yet another proposal, the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act of 2021, which seeks to employ 1.5 million people. It’s inspired by the think tank Evergreen Action’s Climate Corps Plan, which focuses on livable wages, long-term viability, and bringing jobs and climate resilient infrastructure into underserved areas where the needs are the greatest.

Now, as the federal budget gets hammered out through the reconciliation process, Neguse says they are trying to consolidate those multiple proposals to delineate how the corps would operate and where the money would flow. On July 20, he and 83 members of Congress sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, outlining what they’d like to see included and how the previous bills could guide them there. “While each of these bills vary in detail, we collectively ask that the upcoming reconciliation package include text that supports and funds a Civilian Climate Corps program as outlined in this letter,” it read.

Neguse says all the plans generally head in the same direction: they vary in their spending priorities, but they’re all committed to a jobs program that addresses the impacts of climate change. “At the end of the day, I’m less concerned about wording and more worried about getting it across the finish line,” he says. “The question I receive most often from stakeholders is around this program, because the reality is that every month we see the impact of climate change on the people in our communities.”

“The question I receive most often from stakeholders is around this program, because the reality is that every month we see the impact of climate change on the people in our communities.”

The original corps was born out of desperation and cultural upheaval, not dissimilar to what we’re experiencing now. In 1933, during the heart of the Great Depression when unemployment rates were at 25 percent, FDR’s Congress established the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal to create jobs for young people.

Over the course of the program—which ended when the U.S. involvement in World War II—nearly 3 million workers planted billions of trees, built hundreds of thousands of miles of trails, developed new national and state parks, and installed bridges, telephone wires, and water lines.

It was ostensibly a conservation-focused employment plan, but it also supported art, recreation, anthropology, and outdoor access—the CCC reframed how we use public land. If you’ve gone to a concert at Red Rocks in Colorado; visited Texas’s Big Bend National Park; or skied mountains like Cannon, Sunapee, and Gunstock in New England, you’ve benefited from the CCC’s work.

It was far from perfect. It was implicitly racist (Black and Native corps members slept in separate camps and made less money) and explicitly sexist (Eleanor Roosevelt’s offshoot, She-She-She Camps, faced criticism and employed a fraction of the workers). Some of the projects displaced Indigenous people and took over their lands. But many of the projects, including ones that made access to public lands easier, have held up over time.

Now, on the nearly century-old bones of that plan, legislators are trying to create a CCC that will be better, bigger, and broader. “To combat the interlocking crises of the moment—climate change, racial injustice, a global pandemic, and income inequality—our government has an opportunity to modernize a great idea from the past and tailor it to meet the present and the future,” Markey said in a statement.

To successfully address those crises, the final plan needs to hit from every angle. Yes, it should have the Neguse bill’s fire mitigation, funding for recreation, and deferred national park maintenance, but it also must bring in jobs in renewable infrastructure and transportation. As Markey and AOC’s plan stated, the new CCC should offer health care, fair wages, and long-term job training so corps members can thrive and use their skills after leaving the program. And it should address a wide range of environmental and equity issues, from soil health to affordable and efficient housing, that will have long-term, wide-ranging impacts.

The idea of the revamped CCC has broad public support. Recent polling from the progressive think tank Data for Progress shows that 65 percent of likely voters support the concept, including a plurality of Republicans, and that it’s particularly popular in rural areas. Senate Republicans are dragging their feet because of the cost and on partisan grounds. But as fire season rages and floods rip through Neguse’s district, Democrats are pushing to get a budget plan that includes the new CCC onto the president’s desk soon to curb as much climate destruction as they can.