In 1933, when millions of Americans were out of work because of the Great Depression, the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps—part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—hired a “tree army” of young men who eventually planted 3.5 billion trees (among other projects, such as building trails in national parks) across the country. Biden’s new Civilian Climate Corps has similar goals: Give people jobs and simultaneously tackle climate work such as reforestation and protecting biodiversity.
“There are tens of millions of Americans that are currently without work,” says Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida, who has called for a new CCC in the past. “At the same time, we have people that care deeply about the climate, and that would like to give back and that would like to contribute to improving our environment and preserving a habitable, habitable planet.”
Biden announced the creation of the new program on January 27 as part of a sweeping executive order on climate change that also includes a new goal to move to clean electricity by 2035 and electrify the federal fleet of 600,000-plus vehicles. The administration hasn’t yet shared all of the details of how the program will work but says that it will “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate.”
In California, for example, that might include helping manage forests to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires. Nearly 10,000 fires burned more than 4 million acres of land in the state in 2020. Climate change is making California hotter and drier and the fire season longer. Because firefighters have suppressed small, natural fires for decades, forests are also filled with dead trees and brush that normally would have burned. When fires hit, they burn hotter and more destructively. There hasn’t been enough funding for steps such as thinning out trees or controlled burns that can reduce fuel. But those are tasks that the Civilian Climate Corps could take on, along with work such as replanting trees strategically in areas that have burned in recent years. In other states, workers might focus on wetland restoration or regenerative agriculture.
The program will look different from the original Civilian Conservation Corps, which only hired men and sent them to live in camps as they worked. (The camps were racially segregated.) Workers were paid, along with room and board, $30 a month—equivalent to around $600 now—and were required to send $25 of that home to their families.
Now, it’s crucial that the young workers enrolled in the corps are paid well, Paul says. “What’s critically important here is that these are good jobs,” he says. “The Biden administration needs to make sure that folks are paid a living wage, which means at least $15 an hour, and that they’re also paid prevailing wages so that these workers don’t undercut other workers.” Other New Deal programs are a good model, he says, such as the Civil Works Administration, which put millions of people to work in jobs such as building schools at prevailing wages.
Paul argues that the program could also include an educational component; the original CCC helped teach many participants basic literacy. “If workers are employed in the Civilian Climate Corps, why can’t they access something akin to the GI Bill, which is provided to members of the armed services, where the government assists them in obtaining an education? I think that we can be creative in thinking about how this program could look,” he says. It could also potentially include different types of work, such as funding for artists to help build support for the broader work of protecting nature and fighting climate change.
There’s likely to be strong interest in enrolling. “When I ask my students, and I’ve asked multiple classes, ‘How many of you would go spend a year or two working in a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps doing climate work for $15 an hour?’ 80% of the hands in the room go up,” he says. “Folks are so hungry to do something like this. Primarily because they care about the planet, and they’re seeing it go up in flames before their eyes. They’re just desperate to give back and find some way to do their part to ensure that we preserve a habitable planet for ourselves and for the generations to come. They’re really committed to leaving the planet better than we inherited it.”