The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

9 questions about the Civilian Climate Corps, answered

Lawmakers want to put thousands of young people to work to fight climate change. Here’s what that could look like.

A member of the Civilian Conservation Corps works on overhead wiring in 1940. (AP)

A week after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at finding ways to combat climate change. Among the provisions was a directive to figure out how to establish the first-ever Civilian Climate Corps.

In July, dozens of Democratic lawmakers sent a bicameral letter to leaders House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) expressing “strong support for funding a Civilian Climate Corps.” Now, it’s being included in the $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending bill, which could pass along party lines as soon as this month.

Using a process known as budget reconciliation, the sweeping measure could provide funding for a laundry list of initiatives — including a climate corps. But how exactly would a Civilian Climate Corps work?

Here’s what we know so far.

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

What would the Civilian Climate Corps look like?

The corps would be a federally funded initiative aimed at employing tens of thousands of young people to fight climate change. In his executive order, Biden laid out a litany of objectives for the corps.

“The initiative shall 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,” it reads.

Projects could range from wetland restoration in Florida’s Everglades to building parks or installing solar panels in urban areas. Corps members would be paid, with Democrats pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, health-care benefits and — under some proposals — an educational stipend.

How is this like the Civilian Conservation Corps? How is it different?

Born out of the Great Depression and championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps program ran from 1933 to 1942.

The program put millions of young men to work across the country — cutting trails, building roads and solidifying America’s infrastructure. A Time magazine article from 1939 noted that “more continuously than any other New Deal experiment, CCC has had the respect of foes as well as friends of Franklin Roosevelt.”

While the proposed climate corps has not garnered such bipartisan support in Congress, its ethos is akin to the original. Both programs come at a time when the country is facing employment, environment and infrastructure woes. And from trail maintenance to conservation infrastructure, they could tackle similar projects.

But “there are some key differences,” said Mark Paul, an environmental economist at the New College of Florida who has advised Democratic lawmakers on the climate corps.

One divergence is scope. FDR’s corps was massive, employing some half a million Americans annually at its height. Even the most ambitious iterations of the climate corps would top out at around 300,000 members per year, with the more likely outcome a fraction of that.

Then there’s diversity. The original CCC was almost exclusively open to young, White men. The aim for the revival is to be much more inclusive.

In April, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) proposed building a climate corps of 1.5 million over five years, with half of participants coming from “under-resourced communities of need.” And an initial list of Senate Democrats’ objectives for reconciliation noted potential funding for a “Native Civilian Climate Corps.”

“There has traditionally not been a lot of diversity in the conservation field,” said Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce, a nonprofit focused on environmental workforce development. “We now have an opportunity to correct that.”

Biden, Dems push Civilian Climate Corps in echo of New Deal

Are there currently any climate corps?

The first post-FDR conservation corps — the Student Conservation Association — formed in 1957, and is in operation to this day. And according to the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, also known as the Corps Network, there are currently over 130 conservation corps with roughly 25,000 members nationwide. That includes many groups receiving federal funding from AmeriCorps, “a network of local, state, and national service programs” established during the Clinton administration.

Over the years, there have been calls to expand. The Obama administration set up a task force to examine the possibility of a climate corps. Its 2012 report called for growing the corps’ ranks to 100,000 by 2018. While that never happened, both the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have now taken up the cause.

Is there opposition?

Republicans have generally criticized the climate corps, calling it unnecessary. “We don’t need another FDR program, and the idea that this is going to help land management is a false idea, as well,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, told the Associated Press.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) asked at a recent hearing: “Does it mean a taxpayer-funded community organizing effort? Young climate pioneers in every neighborhood to report on who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking, who is spreading forbidden climate disinformation?”

The reconciliation package, which would establish the climate corps, is not expected to garner any Republican votes.

How much funding could the proposal receive?

Funding proposals for a climate corps have varied wildly. The White House has previously called for $10 billion to create it. And Paul, who advised on the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act from Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, says that plan would require approximately $132 billion.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said he’s seen climate corps funding figures ranging from about $10 billion to $30 billion in the current congressional budget bill discussions.

“The range of what’s being proposed here is pretty substantial,” Paul said. “The big question is what scale the program will take.”

Ultimately, funding decisions will shape the size of any future corps. Mary Ellen Sprenkel, president of the Corps Network, estimates that it would cost about $40,000 to $45,000 to add each additional corps member. Paul said that with an educational stipend, that number could be closer to $70,000.

Biden presses for climate change measures as he tours fire-ravaged states in West

Who would run the climate corps? How would they recruit members?

The Markey and Ocasio-Cortez plan would run the program through AmeriCorps. Others have suggested that the funding be spread across government agencies.

“AmeriCorps is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “But the Civilian Climate Corps will be most effective if we focus our investment in quality job training programs that will prepare workers for successful climate-focused careers.”

Whatever money does materialize, Sprenkel would like to see it be a public-private partnership that leverages existing corps networks, as well as a variety of government entities. “We believe there needs to be partnerships across different agencies,” she said.

O’Mara said he thinks the effort will ultimately involve more than one agency. Although he said a lot of details still need to be sorted out, it looks as if “a part of it’s going to go through AmeriCorps, and a part of it’s going to go to through agencies that have some existing infrastructure.”

Where the climate corps — or portions of the corps — is housed could affect how it recruits members, but the Corps Network says that ad campaigns could help raise awareness. A livable-wage job that offers training and educational support could also be inherently attractive to young people, Paul said.

When can individuals sign up?

With many of the details unsettled, the timeline is difficult to predict. But once a climate corps is funded, Paul hopes that there will be projects underway within a couple of years.

“The youth are deeply concerned about the climate crisis,” he said. “They want opportunities to work.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.