A young paramedic smiles at the camera, she is part of the new American Climate Corps program, which will include jobs for emergency responders for extreme weather events.
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Youth are the future

The American Climate Corps: A 21st Century Solution rooted in a New Deal model

Daren Wang
October 11, 2023

When we look at reaching the world’s Net Zero goal, the focus is often on changing the fuels we use or the goods we consume. But a key part of the change has to be to put boots on the ground doing the nuts-and-bolts work. Much of that work is going to require a skilled workforce that does not currently exist.

Last month, the White House launched The American Climate Corps (ACC), a workforce training and service initiative intended to give young people access to the skills-based training necessary for good-paying careers in the clean energy and climate resilience economy.  The initiative draws inspiration from historical programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Ameri-Corps, aiming to address not only the environmental crisis but also the need for sustainable job opportunities, especially among young Americans.

A Visionary Response to Climate Change

In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the CCC, employing millions of Americans in conservation efforts. Decades later, President John F. Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps, sending young Americans overseas to assist impoverished regions. In 1993, President Bill Clinton launched Ameri-Corps, engaging youth in service work across the nation.

The Biden-Harris Administration is carrying this model forward with the ACC. This initiative, inaugurated last month, is designed to prepare young people for careers in clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience. While the scale is smaller than the Depression-era CCC, the ACC is set to create approximately 20,000 jobs for young Americans in its first year.

The program was proposed in the earliest days of the administration and included in early drafts of 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act, along with over $350 billion for renewable energy. It did not make the final cut, however, and the Biden White House has had to repurpose funding from across several agencies and initiatives to cobble together this version of the program.

One distinguishing feature of the ACC is its strong commitment to equity and environmental justice. The program deliberately targets underserved communities, including those that have suffered the negative consequences of the country’s energy policy. This approach seeks to address long-standing disparities and ensure that the benefits of clean energy and conservation are accessible to all. Although recruitment efforts are expected to target those communities, the program is open to everyone. The White House has set up a page where people can sign up for more information and be notified when the application process opens.

A Collaborative Effort to Combat Climate Change

The ACC program is structured to invite collaboration across various sectors. President Biden has called upon tribal, state, and local governments, labor unions, nonprofits, the private sector, and philanthropists to expand existing training partnerships to meet climate goals. As part of this initiative, the Department of the Interior is committing $15 million to support programs like the Indian Youth Service Corps and other initiatives dedicated to nurturing the next generation of conservation and climate stewards.

The potential to-do list is long:

  • The National Park Service has famously compiled  $12 Billion of needed repairs, even as attendance at popular destinations continues to skyrocket.
  • Another key area of need is in forestry. As unprecedented wildfires rage across the Western U.S. and Canada, thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns have become an even greater priority. Yet, both remain underfunded and underserviced by existing programs within the federal government.
A young tree planter helps with forest restoration
  • Wetlands have been reduced to half of their historic acreage. Restoring those ecosystems not only provides tremendous carbon sequestration benefits, but those regions are often the first line of defense for hurricanes and coastal flooding.
  • The solar, wind, and energy transmission industries all face a shortage of skilled labor as the renewable energy sector gears up for massive growth following 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act. The ACC is expected to emphasize training and apprenticeship opportunities for future electricians.
Two wind turbine engineers review plans at a wind farm
  • Retrofitting homes and businesses to optimize energy efficiency is a key part of Net Zero goals. Sending ACC workers into disadvantaged communities to help bring existing buildings up to modern standards would bring financial benefits by reducing consumers’ bills while helping decrease energy consumption.
  • A mobilized task force may be created to help respond to the growing scourge of billion-dollar extreme weather disasters pushing federal and state services to a breaking point.

The administration is collaborating with at least five federal agencies and ten states, pooling resources and coordinating recruitment efforts. States like California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Washington have already launched similar programs, demonstrating the effectiveness of skills-based training in creating pathways to well-paying jobs.

While the ACC is designed to make an immediate impact on climate-related projects, it places significant emphasis on creating clear career pathways into the growing climate field. The Office of Personnel Management has proposed a rule to create a streamlined pathway into federal service for participants in the program. This move acknowledges the increasing demand for trained clean energy and resilience workers and aims to ensure a fair transition.

The American Climate Corps represents a forward-looking response to the concerns of young people and the urgent need to combat climate change. By targeting disadvantaged communities, emphasizing equity, and collaborating with a range of stakeholders, this initiative has the potential to transform our approach to climate-related challenges through a modernized workforce. While its immediate focus is on practical projects, its long-term impact could shape the future of clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience in the United States.

The long-term goal of the ACC is a new era of youth-powered climate action, where the next generation of leaders will play a central role in addressing the defining issue of our time.

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