We Have a Jobs Crisis and an Environmental Crisis. The Answer to Both Is a Civilian Climate Corps.
From Bernie Sanders and AOC to the Sunrise Movement, progressives are working to establish an updated version of a New Deal program to meet the challenges of economic and climate upheaval. Its time has come.
The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal embraced by President Joe Biden appears to be a dud. Instead of taxing the rich to modernize America’s roads, water systems and other infrastructure, it promotes various forms of privatization. A summary released in late June about how new construction will be financed includes so-called “public-private partnerships,” which are essentially high-interest loans to state and local governments that deliver massive returns for Wall Street banks, private equity investors and multinational financial firms. Also listed is a fringe policy idea called “asset recycling,” which would incentivize states and cities to outright sell off public assets. Back in 2009, Chicago leased out its parking meters to investors as far away as Abu Dhabi for at least $1 billion under value, which has forced residents to pick up the tab ever since. Asset recycling is that type of scheme on steroids.
If Biden is committed to tackling both climate change and inequality — which he says he is—then encouraging privatization is counterproductive. Privatizing infrastructure makes adapting to a warming climate harder—because it gives decision making power to corporations and investors. It raises fees and rates for residents—because those corporations and investors need to make a profit. And it creates a race to the bottom on worker wages—because contracted out workers are less likely to be members of a union.
But all is not lost. Biden has a chance to deliver for working people and a healthy climate if he listens to progressives when it comes to a promising proposal that could potentially create millions of good-paying, green public jobs: The Civilian Climate Corps (CCC).
The CCC would be a government jobs program that puts people to work directly combatting the climate crisis. First envisioned by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the program would aim to “conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
Its impact could be considerable, especially if the final product echoes a proposal released in April by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.). Their proposed CCC would create 1.5 million jobs that would pay at least $15 per hour, provide full healthcare coverage, and offer support beyond the workplace, like housing and educational grants.
The good news is that, even though Biden’s bipartisan deal doesn’t include money for the CCC, the president actually already established the program in a January executive order, and his original American Jobs Plan called for $10 billion in funding for it. The bad news is that the proposed funding was only a fraction of what’s needed. Biden’s proposal would only create up to 20,000 jobs a year—nowhere near the overall need.
That’s why progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and Ocasio-Cortez, alongside groups like Sunrise and the National Wildlife Federation, are pushing for a much bigger and broader infrastructure investment than the bipartisan deal, to include substantial funding for the CCC.
One avenue will be to pressure Biden to keep his word when it comes to public jobs. In late June, the president signed an executive order directing the the federal government to encourage diversity and inclusion among its workforce. If a CCC becomes a reality, it must avoid the mistakes made by its predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established in 1933.
The first corps accomplished plenty. Over nine years, it employed some 3 million young men to fight forest fires, build more than 100,000 miles of roads and trails, construct 318,000 dams, connect telephone lines across mountain passes, plant 3 billion trees, and much more. But it suffered the same affliction as many New Deal-era programs by mostly shutting out Black Americans.
While the bill authorizing the program stipulated that “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed,” Black workers were separated into different camps and often given more difficult, less prestigious work. They also experienced resistance when climbing the ranks within the Civilian Conservation Corps’ administrative hierarchy. Women weren’t allowed to join at all, instead offered opportunities with Eleanor Roosevelt’s “She-She-She” camps, which were widely scorned and only benefited some 8,500 people.
That’s why a new CCC must aim to target communities most harmed by the intersecting Covid-19, climate and unemployment crises. As In These Times’ editors wrote back in April, “The new Civilian Climate Corps must center Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous communities, which have been disproportionately affected by environmental injustice (and Covid-19).”
Public employment has long offered stable jobs to people of color, particularly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Americans gained 28 percent of new federal government jobs in the 1960s, while only making up 10 percent of the U.S. population. By the 1980s and 1990s, Black public employees were twice as likely as their private sector counterparts to receive promotions into white collar managerial positions and technical jobs. For both men and women, the median wage earned by Black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
For now, with the Senate still debating the paltry bipartisan infrastructure deal, it appears that funding for the CCC will have to find its way into a future budget reconciliation package, which wouldn’t require Republican votes to pass. “I want to enlist a new generation of climate conservation and resilience workers like FDR did with the American work plan for preserving our landscape with the Civilian Conservation Corps,” Biden said in a July 7 speech in Illinois. He made clear that the CCC, as well as other policies like two free years of community college, aren’t going to be in the bipartisan deal. “In Washington, they call it a reconciliation bill,” he said of the plan for enacting other major parts of his agenda.
Sanders is currently crafting language for such a bill, and plans to include increased funding for the CCC (reportedly $50 billion on top of Biden’s original proposal). Making such an investment a reality will likely require climate organizers and advocates to keep the pressure on lawmakers in Washington so they don’t renege on their promises on the environment.
People need jobs. We need to modernize our infrastructure to combat climate change. The federal government is the only institution with enough coordination and resources to kill those two birds with one stone. A well-funded CCC is the clear path forward.