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America Gets a Civilian Climate Corps
This is an idea whose time has come...
President Biden yesterday rolled out a new American Climate Corps. I’ll get to the details in a minute, but first it’s important to understand the backstory.
America is facing an environmental crisis that’s costing us thousands of lives and tens of billions a year. The last time our country faced such a natural disaster President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped up and dealt with it; now the Biden administration is doing the same.
In 1933, America was both in the depths of the Republican Great Depression and facing an environmental disaster of national proportions. Sweeping from Texas to Nebraska, the Dust Bowl lifted 1.2 billion tons of soil from over 100 million acres, blowing it as far east as New York City, where it browned out the skies for weeks.
The Dust Bowl killed around 7,000 people and left at least 2 million homeless. My old friend Dennis Weaver (I wrote the foreword to his autobiography, All The World’s A Stage) tells the story of how his parents bundled him and his sister (Jerry) and brother (Howard) in an old dyspeptic station wagon and drove from Oklahoma to Oregon to flee the dust storms that had wiped out their home. (They worked here in Oregon as migrant farm-workers, picking strawberries, until Dennis eventually made his way to Hollywood and got a job in the movies.)
The storms also had a cascade effect on U.S. agriculture. Wheat production fell by 36% and maize production plummeted by 48% during those years. On a single day, “Black Sunday” April 14, 1935, an estimated three million tons of topsoil were lost from the Great Plains.
As best anybody knows, the main cause of the Dust Bowl was the widespread deforestation of the central United States for cropland, combined with soil-destructive agricultural practices and a widespread drought through much of the 1930s.
President Roosevelt ended it by starting the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which planted more than three billion trees; built trails and shelters in over 800 parks; planted over 200 million trees in a belt from Bismarck, North Dakota to Amarillo, Texas; and planted seedlings on marginal or abandoned farmlands.
The trees planted by the CCC can still be seen today all over the country. Because the evaporative surface area of a single tree’s leaves typically represent about four times the footprint of the tree itself, they draw water up from deep underground and evaporate it into the atmosphere, producing downwind clouds and rain. Between the new trees’ windbreak and this water cycling, the CCC’s trees helped end the Dust Bowl.
The CCC was a good idea in the 1930s (it ran from 1933 to 1942 and employed over 3 million young men), and is a good idea today, too.
In the first month of his term in office, President Biden committed to revisiting the CCC or something like it to deal with today’s climate emergency. In a January 27, 2021 Executive Order “On Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” he wrote:
“Sec. 215. Civilian Climate Corps. In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 214 of this order, the Secretary of the Interior, in collaboration with the Secretary of Agriculture and the heads of other relevant agencies, shall submit a strategy to the Task Force within 90 days of the date of this order for creating a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, within existing appropriations, to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs. 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.”
This Monday, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with 49 colleagues, wrote a public letter encouraging the President to implement his executive order and create a modern-day CCC. They also introduced legislation, the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act of 2023, in both the House and Senate to bring such a program into existence.
The legislators have already received the endorsement of multiple groups for such a program. They include:
The Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, Union of Concerned Scientists, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, SEIU, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, Progressive Democrats of America, Anthropocene Alliance, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Climate Hawks Vote, United Electrical – Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), Evergreen Action, FracTracker Alliance, MADRE, Marked By COVID, Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, Next100, People's Action, WildEarth Guardians, Rachel Carson Council, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Appalachian Mountain Club, and Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
Their proposal would employ 1.5 million Americans for a 5-year period, building on the foundation of the AmeriCorps program, to help preserve and remediate the natural environment across America while organically sequestering billions of tons of carbon.
And now President Biden has begun it. He rolled out the new Civilian Climate Corps yesterday, as its website says:
“The American Climate Corps will put a new generation of Americans to work conserving our lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, advancing environmental justice, deploying clean energy, implementing energy efficient technologies, and tackling climate change.
“American Climate Corps members will gain the skills necessary to access good-paying jobs that are aligned with high-quality employment opportunities after they complete their paid training or service program.”
The program President Biden rolled out through executive action is much smaller than the one Markey and Ocasio-Cortez envisioned but it’s a great start.
If you know somebody interested in joining up, the website is: https://www.whitehouse.gov/climatecorps/.