The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: A 'climate corps' is core to many 2020 Democrats' environmental plans

with Paulina Firozi


Democrats running for president on promises to slow climate change are asking young people to do more than just vote for them. Many White House hopefuls are laying out plans to put teenagers and 20-somethings to work guarding the country against the worst effects of global warming.

Core to a number of Democrats’ climate plans is the creation of a “climate corps.” Akin to the Peace Corps launched in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy as a soft-power check against Russia, a climate-focused national service program would tackle what many presidential candidates see as this generation’s greatest challenge by putting young Americans to work planting trees, restoring wetlands and aiding victims of natural disasters.

Such a program attempts to channel the popular calls for national service from both Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and Kennedy during the Cold War into action this century -- an updated version of the latter's call to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." 

The latest Democrat to propose such a program is Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) on Thursday unveiled a bill that would establish a new civilian corps focused on environmental stewardship.

Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal-era work-relief program, Booker’s proposed Agriculture Department program would train, house and deploy youths from low-income and minority communities during two-year stints in the restoration of U.S. forests and wetlands.

The aim of Booker’s bill is to plant more than 4 billion trees by 2030 and 15 billion trees by 2050 across federal, state, tribal and private lands in an effort to restore wildlife habitat and sequester climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere. The plan calls for more than 50,000 young people to be enrolled in the corps by 2027 and assist them in finding jobs after completion.

“In FDR’s New Deal, the federal government planted billions of trees, provided conservation incentives to family farmers and ranchers, created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and electrified rural America,” Booker said in a statement. “In order to address the urgent and existential threat posed by climate change, all of these approaches should be part of our broader strategy.”

But Booker is hardly the only 2020 Democrat who has a climate corps as a key component of his or her environmental platform.

Former Maryland congressman John Delaney is pitching a climate corps that would deploy young volunteers to install rooftop solar panels and retrofit buildings to conserve energy.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who enlisted in the Navy Reserve after graduating college, wants to create a civilian corps to aid in response to natural disasters as part of his broader national service plan.

And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose candidacy for president is centered on climate change, wants the young volunteers in his own proposed conservation corps to work on mitigating the causes of climate change not only at home but also abroad — with an aim of placing some participants in green jobs outside government after finishing.

The two-birds-with-one-stone approach — to give young people jobs while preparing for a warmer world — is also being pitched by some Democrats as part of their vision for a Green New Deal. That nonbinding congressional resolution, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), calls for a job guarantee as part of a broader plan toward the ambitious goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions within a decade.

Eric Seleznow, former deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department under President Barack Obama, cautioned administrators of any future climate corps to ensure that it gives participants marketable skills if they are going to promote it as a job-training program.

“Most of the country's workforce development programs have gotten a lot smarter over the past few years, and we do not invest in training unless there's it's an in-demand occupation,” said Seleznow, who is now a senior adviser at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group focused on workforce development.

“So there's got to be a demonstration that the jobs are there or that the jobs will be there soon,” he added.

Jobs in the renewable energy industry are rapidly growing. Solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians are projected to be the No. 1 and 2 fastest-growing occupations in the country between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which has run its own "climate corps" since 2008 for graduate students, turns away 90 percent of applicants — a sign, according to EDF's Tom Murray, that there will be interest in a federal program.

"We know in our own program that young people are hungry to be part of a solution to climate change," Murray said.

In the past, service corps were used to address other societal ills is not new. From 1933 to 1942, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps trained unmarried and unemployed young men for construction and other trades by putting them to work building dams, roads and bridges.

The beginning of U.S. participation in World War II brought an end to the CCC. But the current Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, started during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration as part of the War on Poverty, still trains disadvantaged young people for wildland fire fighting and finds its roots in the New Deal.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed pulling out of the rural Job Corps program, which would have resulted layoff of 1,110 employees. But facing bipartisan opposition in Congress, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the administration backtracked from what was believed to be the largest number of federal jobs cuts in a decade.


 — "Clarion call for the need for us to manage land": On Thursday, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out major report suggesting the "world cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change without making serious changes to the ways humans grow food, raise livestock and manage forests," according to The Post's Brady Dennis. While power plants and automobiles remain the major drivers of climate change, the IPCC found that emissions from agriculture and other land use account for 23 percent of greenhouse gas releases.

Among the difficult-to-execute solutions, per Dennis:

  • Fewer cows: "Sharply reducing the number of livestock could have significant impacts by cutting emissions by billions of tons..."
  • But... "...that would require large-scale changes to what people eat."
  • More trees: "Meanwhile, planting massive new forests, an approach known as afforestation, could help remove meaningful amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year..."
  • But... "...doing that on a massive scale could sharply increase food prices and put millions of people at risk of under nourishment."

Last year, the same panel of scientists found that the world needs to take “unprecedented” actions to cut carbon emissions over the next decade to avoid some of the more devastating impacts of climate change.

— Another climate plan from Elizabeth Warren: In a new proposal for overhauling farm policy in the United States, the Massachusetts Democrat has included a plan to incentivize environmental conservation. In a post on Medium, she lamented current practices and government policy that “encourages overproduction by guaranteeing revenue regardless of prices or environmental conditions. And it feeds climate change.” “As President, I will lead a full-out effort to decarbonize the agricultural sector by investing in our farmers and giving them the tools, research, and training they need to transform the sector,” she wrote. The plan is set to help reach targets set by the Green New Deal for net-zero emissions by 2030. Warren also wants to invest resources toward innovation for decarbonizing the agriculture industry.

— States, green group sue EPA over pesticide: Six states filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to continue to allow a widely used pesticide — chlorpyrifos — that's been linked to brain damage to be used in food. "The EPA is egregiously sacrificing our children’s health by refusing to make a determination on this dangerous pesticide," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. The states of New York, Washington, Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts joined California in the suit. Separately, Earthjustice announced a similar lawsuit.

Why sue now? Last month, the EPA rejected a call from environmental and public health advocates to bar the product, arguing that “critical questions remained regarding the significance of the data” that points to neurological damage in young children as a result of the pesticide, as The Post's Dennis and Juliet Eilperin reported then.

— Notes in the margins: After State Department intelligence official Rod Schoonover submitted a draft of congressional testimony he planned to deliver on climate change — testimony later blocked by the White House — he received some edits from White House officials. They included a “challenge to the scientific consensus that warming oceans pose an intensifying mortal threat to coral reef systems, home to a quarter of all marine life and a vital resource in the global food market,” McClatchy reports. A comment on analyst Schoonover’s testimony attributed to the National Security Council, says: “There is no evidence that coral bleaching is intensifying now or will in the future … Coral reefs have bleached and usually recovered throughout their evolutionary history.” Citing two sources, McClatchy says the comment was written by William Happer, an NSC senior director who has touted the benefits of carbon dioxide.

About those comments: “Clearly this is someone who either is not aware of the scientific literature that overwhelmingly shows that coral bleaching has increased — and most certainly will continue to increase as the climate warms — or they’re ignoring that literature,” Mark Eakin, coordinator of the NOAA Coral Reef Watch, told McClatchy. “Normally, documents of this sort require vetting by experts within the administration, and those experts usually include people who are knowledgeable in the subject. We don’t know what was done in this case.”

— Training the next doctors dealing with climate change: A movement to train medical students on climate-related risks is slowly gaining steam. The hope is that health-care providers will be able to assess and treat conditions that will appear or worsen as the Earth warms. There are 187 schools and programs that have joined a two-year-old coalition formed by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public to push for adding climate to medical and health curriculums, the Wall Street Journal reports. “The Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education offers resources including links to slides, videos and online courses, as well as curriculum suggestions,” the WSJ reports. “The [American Medical Association] adopted its policy to support teaching on climate change to all physicians and medical students this June, and the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations wants medical schools to add the topic by next year.”

— How climate changes will affect turbulence: Clear air turbulence — occurring in clear skies with no obvious visual signal for pilots — could become more frequent in skies above the North Atlantic as climate change worsens, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports, citing a new study published in the journal Nature. “One of the major causes of clear air turbulence is wind shear, which occurs when winds vary in speed or direction with height,” he adds. “ … The focus on shear allows the authors to draw conclusions about turbulence trends, concluding that future trans-Atlantic flights may encounter more clear air turbulence than they are now. They note that climate projections show that the North Atlantic will see a greater increase in clear-air turbulence at cruising altitude than anywhere else in the world.”



  • The Atlantic Council holds a conversation with journalists on covering the energy transition.


— That's one massive parrot: The fossils of a giant parrot that lived 19 million years ago were discovered in New Zealand, according to a new study. “At about 3 feet tall, the bird would likely have stood nearly as tall as the average American 4-year-old,” The Post’s Morgan Krakow writes. According to researchers, the bird probably didn't fly and ate what was within reach. Research co-author Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales, told National Geographic the parrot also may have eaten other parrots, hence its nickname: "Squawkzilla."