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

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, August 9, 2019

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) (AP Photo/John Locher)

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.