AOC’s plan for a 1.5 million-member Civilian Climate Corps, explained

The Green New Deal was reintroduced this week, two years after its debut. And now it’s more than simply a framework: Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the sprawling package of measures aims to get the country back on track.

With the Washington Monument behind them, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts announced a collection of measures focusing on green jobs and social justice. Along with legislation to bring a Green New Deal to cities, public housing, and farms, they introduced a bill for a climate corps that would put 1.5 million Americans to work, addressing the climate crisis and the pandemic-induced unemployment crisis at the same time.

Their “Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act” is imagined as a modernized version of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the original New Deal. Starting in the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the nine-year program employed 3 million men who planted billions of trees, fought forest fires, and built trails you can hike in National Parks today.

The Biden administration is already working on its own plan for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which it announced in January, tucked into a single paragraph of an executive order. Ocasio-Cortez reportedly played a role in making that happen — during Biden’s presidential campaign, she floated the idea to former Secretary of State John Kerry, now the special presidential envoy for climate, who convinced Biden to take up the idea.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s measure spells out a version of the corps that appears to be bigger in scope than the Biden administration’s current plan, at least given the sparse details the president has provided. Likely inspired by a recent report from the climate policy group Evergreen Action, AOC and Markey’s proposal calls for a climate army to modernize America’s infrastructure and work to protect towns from disasters like wildfires. Experts say there are a handful of aspects that set the plan apart from past proposals.

1. Scale

In the American Jobs Plan unveiled last month, Biden asked for $10 billion to jumpstart the CCC, an amount that Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and the environment at the New College of Florida, says is far too low. According to his calculations, that could fund somewhere between 150,000 to 200,000 workers. In comparison, the AOC and Markey bill would employ 1.5 million people over a span of five years, increasing the program’s scope nearly 10-fold. (Paul knows their proposal well, since he was consulted for feedback after it was written.)

Still, Paul doesn’t think even that goes far enough to meet the demands of the moment. “There’s a massive amount of interest, and we certainly have no shortage of work to be done,” he said, citing efforts to restore wetlands and forests across the country, retrofit buildings, and set up half a million charging stations for electric vehicles. A poll conducted this month from Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, suggests plenty of people would be ready to sign up. In a survey of 1,200 likely voters, half of those under 45 said they’d consider joining the Civilian Climate Corps given the chance. (The new bill also stipulates that at least half of the projects would have no age limit for participation.)

2. Compensation

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey would use the government’s existing structure of AmeriCorps to get the CCC running quickly. AmeriCorps isn’t exactly known for good-paying jobs. Created along the lines of a domestic Peace Corps, members are more like volunteers who get a stipend. Pay is so meager that corps members are encouraged to sign up for food stamps — so it’s not an ideal way for a program to tackle unemployment.

Markey and Ocasio-Cortez are proposing that climate corps members be paid at least $15 an hour and receive health care coverage and other benefits like child care and counseling. Service in the CCC is pictured as a path to a future career, with members given at least four weeks of training in energy efficiency, conservation, or urban development “to improve job prospects in the clean economy workforce.” Corps members would also receive an educational grant of $25,000 per year to put toward student debt or future schooling.

3. Equity

Another unique aspect of the plan: It calls for half of the climate service projects to be based in low-income communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately exposed to pollution and climate-fueled disasters, with at least 10 percent of these projects in tribal areas. Additionally, it proposes recruiting at least half of the corps members from marginalized communities. Among the many suggested service projects, the bill lists air pollution monitoring and remediating toxic pollution sources like lead in drinking water. Biden, too, has signaled that “advancing environmental justice” is one of the goals of his administration’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps.

Paul sees these measures as a way to right historical wrongs. Back in the 1930s, the original CCC segregated work camps and excluded women (except for a few “She-She-She” camps that Eleanor Roosevelt got running). Neil Maher, author of the book Nature’s New Deal and a history professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said that the original CCC program — which placed camps in rural areas — was also “geographically discriminatory” in that it largely ignored urban people and their problems.

4. Local involvement

The original CCC was “really top-down,” Maher said, with those living near projects given “basically no say in what the projects were.” The AOC and Markey bill says the CCC’s activities would be “planned and implemented in a manner that incorporates local knowledge and planning wherever practicable,” working with local organizations and labor unions as partners. 

“It would be the local communities making the call, rather than, you know, Franklin Roosevelt basically dictating where each camp would go,” Maher said.

Now what?

Paul is “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s prospects in Congress since polling has shown a measure of bipartisan support for the idea. “In the very least, I hope that Biden moves much closer to supporting” what Ocasio-Cortez and Markey have outlined, Paul said. “But it’s hard to know what the political sausage machine will spit out at the end of the day here.”

He points out that the original New Deal comprised more than a hundred pieces of legislation that passed over the span of six years. Similarly, he said, “It’s not like we’re gonna just introduce a bill and it’s gonna be the Green New Deal bill” — it would be a package that unfolds over time. Paul thinks that if AOC and Markey’s plan for the climate corps becomes law, it would be an “excellent start to the era of the Green New Deal — which we are now entering.”



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