American Climate Corps: We Want More!

man in blue shirt and white hat planting a tree

Planting trees helps to mitigate climate change naturally, and improves communities in many ways.  Imagine how we could transform local economies if thousands were employed in work like this!  Photo credit: Alfo Medeiros [wikimedia commons]

On Earth Day, President Biden announced that the American Climate Corps (ACC) was accepting applications at its new web portal,  The stated goals of the ACC include training and employing young workers to install solar panels and energy efficiency improvements, restore ecosystems and improve communities’ disaster resilience.  The work of the ACC will be administered by AmeriCorps, in partnership with the Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Ten states will administer their own programs: California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Washington have already launched similar initiatives, while Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Utah plan to do so.  The initial start-up phase will provide 2000 temporary jobs, with a long-term goal of funding 20,000 jobs.  Temporary jobs are intended primarily for young folks, but the program promises to facilitate their entry into life-long careers.

The ACC is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a widely-lauded cornerstone of the FDR-era New Deal, and is becoming a reality thanks to the vision and campaign for a Green New Deal (GND).

Civilian Conservation Corps and Green New Deal

The CCC showed how an ambitious nationwide program can solve multiple problems at once.  During the height of the Great Depression, from 1933 to 1942 this federal government initiative employed more than 3 million young men in conservation jobs in national parks and forests, large crews doing labor-intensive work that would prevent soil erosion, mitigate floods and fires, and provide better wildlife habitat.  They also repaired buildings, improved picnic areas, and built thousands of miles of high-quality hiking trails.  The national parks and forests that are easily accessed and enjoyed by many Americans today are thanks in large part to the CCC; I have many great memories of hiking through beautiful landscapes on trail loops and then enjoying lunch with friends in sturdy picnic shelters, all of which were constructed during this era.  In 1937-38, the CCC also engaged in major disaster relief efforts in the wake of floods and hurricanes.

men planting trees in eroded landscape

CCC workers: erosion control and tree planting.  Photo credit: National Archives

While the CCC has been criticized for the same reasons as other New Deal programs – namely, that benefits were given only to white men – it did make some small efforts to counter the racist and sexist trends of the time.  Black workers were guaranteed to receive equal pay and housing (though all camps were racially segregated), and there was a separate “Indian Division” that taught traditional crafts in addition to conservation work, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s “She-She-She Camps.”  These were comparatively tiny, but noteworthy as examples of how even in those days, there was recognition that New Deal programs were leaving out many Americans.

The New Deal did not transform the economic system (FDR famously remarked that he “saved capitalism”), but it did dramatically reshape the experience of everyday Americans.  To name just a few of the legacies: we still have Social Security (easily the most popular of all government programs) and “Food Stamps” and unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and federally-mandated minimum wage and child labor laws, public housing complexes and bridges built during that time, as well as often-unrecognized New Deal reforms like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and rural electrification administrations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  But the great majority of New Deal programs are long gone.  Some, at the behest of big business interests, were repealed or ruled unconstitutional very quickly, and many more were rolled back piece by piece beginning in the 1950’s, then more aggressively in the 70’s, then declared dead in the neoliberal era of the 80’s-90’s.  Now we find ourselves once again in a profoundly unequal economic landscape reminiscent of the “robber baron” era which precipitated the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago.

Therefore, the time is right to reconsider these types of ideas.  The Green New Deal intentionally recalls the reimagined role of government in a time of crisis, a different vision of America that taxed the rich, encouraged unions, and provided support to those in need.  But the GND is potentially much more transformative than the reforms enacted in response to the Great Depression.  As it should be – global warming presents threats that are much more severe than anything in recorded history.

woman holding sign "Green New Deal means Community Control"

GND advocates demonstrate in Detroit.  Photo credit: Becker1999 [wikimedia commons]

The GND idea is wholeheartedly supported by JTA.  We worked hard to ensure that “just transition” was included in the proposed resolution.  We advocated for and succeeded in removing dubious language about “net-zero emissions.”  We now urge lawmakers to reconsider passing this resolution that provides a vision for a revitalized economy based in renewable energy investments, local self-determination, and renewed commitments to equity.  And to go further by passing ambitious legislation that creates more programs like the ACC to provide good jobs and move us closer to this vision.  We feel that this change is coming soon.  Even though the GND resolution did not pass, the concept has become commonplace thanks to aggressive public education campaigns.

The American Climate Corps’ True Potential

One crucial difference nowadays is the recognition of the New Deal’s inherent shortcomings rooted in racism.  The GND emphasizes the need for environmental justice, prioritizing communities that have been historically most harmed, and the ACC promises to adhere to the goals of Justice40, which mandates that 40 percent of funding must be directed toward disadvantaged communities.  But acknowledging what was good about the New Deal, it is obvious that in order for these mandates to be effective at the required scale, massive nationwide initiatives are necessary.  The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) may technically qualify as the “biggest climate legislation in history,” but it still is not nearly big enough.

Therefore, we got very excited about the potential of the ACC, but were a little disappointed by the recent announcement.  We see this initial phase as the tiniest of baby-steps, and we hope to see it ramped up significantly and rapidly.  A mere 2,000 temporary jobs is a drop in the ocean of the work that is needed.  Even the 20,000 jobs that are promised in the future is not nearly enough.  How about 200,000?  That would still be a relatively modest goal.  The federal government employs nearly 3 million people (about half a million lower than its peak in the ‘80s) and it certainly has the ability to mobilize the resources necessary to put many thousands of people to work in ways that benefit the general public.  Not only the ability, but the duty to do so.  It is the government for the people after all.

solar panel installation

Solar panels being installed over a parking lot.  Photo credit: Arnold Reinhold [wikimedia commons]

The ACC promises to train young workers in skills that will lead into careers, but what about the older workers who need to transition out of industries that are currently causing the climate crisis?  And in a so-called “free market,” what guarantees these careers’ existence?  The ACC needs to develop long-term jobs, because it is long-term work.  It must take its true potential seriously; it must be so much more than summer jobs for students.  Just transition must be integral to its vision, because workers in polluting industries must be swayed to support these types of efforts, not fear for their families’ well-being.  Unions should have a leadership role in determining how and where the money is allocated, and within these unions the rank-and-file membership should engage in democratic bottom-up discussions about what their communities need, how these needs can be translated into local solidarity economy opportunities, and how to achieve all this in ways that increase labor power and minimize resource extraction.  The ACC claims that the White House will “partner with unions” but gives no details about how they will do so, and that they will “build career pathways” with scholarships and credentials.  These are more tiny baby steps, not good enough.  Those most harmed by pollution also know best what are the real solutions, and they must lead the way.  Together we must create a different economic system with different goals, not continue this declining model that compels workers to pursue ever-more degrees and credentials only to find themselves struggling to land an entry-level service job or logged in to multiple gig-work apps at all hours of the day.

In what ways can existing initiatives and leaders be facilitated to expand their projects?  And what types of work should be prioritized?  We need to think outside the box of carbon emissions… great strides could be made if support were given to Indigenous people who know best how to cultivate thriving ecosystems.  We strongly insist that the ACC needs more focus on this crucial work.  New renewable energy infrastructure is undoubtedly necessary, but the best way to reduce the impacts of the climate crisis is to make major lifestyle changes, consuming less and adapting to be more intimately interdependent with the planet and our non-human neighbors.  Indigenous peoples have the skills and experience necessary to do so, but the violent history of colonization has made their traditional knowledge scarce and it is extremely urgent to support the remaining wisdom-keepers in teaching both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities how they can steward the land and their relations.

several people manage a prescribed burn in a prairie

Controlled burns were conducted by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, to prevent larger fires and to maintain habitats ideal for abundant wildlife.  Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

How can the ACC be a stepping stone to our most hopeful goals?  At JTA, we focus our efforts on connecting labor unions and environmental justice organizations, frontline workers and fenceline communities, to envision paths toward transformation.  We fight together to build grassroots power, so that we can make steps toward local zero waste economies and participatory democracy.

And how can this just transition vision extend beyond the civilian economy and begin to transform the often-ignored “military-industrial complex” which is responsible for enormous amounts of emissions as well as destruction and oppression all over the world?  The CCC was administered by the Army, though it was an explicitly non-military endeavor.  This points to an interesting possibility.  The US military is comprised of over 2 million soldiers and nearly 800,000 civilians (a very large portion of the federal employees mentioned above).  What if these folks’ efforts were redirected toward land stewardship?  What if the massive amounts of “defense” spending were turned from activities that are destructive and polluting to those that are regenerative and restorative?  Soldiers could start with cleanup on their own bases and facilities, many of which have created terrible soil and groundwater pollution and done a great deal of harm to surrounding communities.  Then they could move on to disaster resilience projects, which are obviously a form of defending our country (much more clearly so than many of the recent wars).  Ecosystem restoration efforts such as tree planting often require enormous amounts of hard manual labor, carefully coordinated and planned with complicated logistics.  Military institutions are adept at exactly this type of work.

From Potential Opportunities to Real Transformation

In addition to these important questions that can help to better realize the ACC’s true potential, we want to make another point that is simply unquestionable.  While the successes of the New Deal and CCC may seem very far away in this global corporate colonialism paradigm, it is clear that the 1920’s and 2020’s bear a striking resemblance.  Inequality is at an all-time high, and as the stock market soars many ordinary Americans’ gut feelings tell them that the economy is precarious at best.  In so many ways, we already know how to solve the problems we face.  To reduce fossil fuel pollution, first of all we must consume less.  To make the system work for all Americans, first of all we must tax the rich.  To do that, we must reimagine the function of government.  This moment feels like what little democracy we have is facing existential threats; but crises are not only dangers, they are also opportunities.  Now is the moment to push hard with alternative visions.  We may need to vote for Democrats to avoid the greater evils, but we must understand that after they win, they owe us and we have every right to make demands and to organize, fight, strike and disrupt to make sure that those demands are met.  If we do not, they will take only the tiniest of baby steps, or even regress.  In order to make powerful leaps forward, we need to build and demonstrate our grassroots power, to compel decision-makers to recognize what is truly at stake and “save the system,” exactly as it happened with FDR.

At the end of the day, with all of our criticisms, we are happy to see the American Climate Corps, as an example of the type of thinking that can lead to positive change.  By the time you are reading this, all of the initial job listings are already filled.  But if we fight together for a just transition we can not only grow the scale and impact of this opportunity, but also amplify our vision of the Green New Deal into all levels of government, industries, and the general public.