Our world is in crisis. Rising temperatures are causing more frequent and destructive extreme weather events with ever-increasing human and financial costs. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if the planet warms 2 degrees Celsius, the consequences would be catastrophic and irreversible.
Two weeks ago, 12 presidential candidates took the stage in Gaston Hall to present their ideas on how to address this crisis. Their visions included far-reaching policy changes and suggestions for how individuals can make a difference. However, we can draw on the past for examples of programs we could invest in for the future.
This editorial board believes the United States should reinstate an adapted version of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to combat climate change and provide opportunities for engagement and employment.
The CCC was first established in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda. It was a voluntary program that provided work opportunities for unmarried men ages 18 to 25. They received uniforms, housing, meals, and medical care, as well as a small stipend of $30 a month—most of which they were required to send home.
Before Congress voted to end the program in 1942, as draft-age men were needed for military service, the CCC constructed roads and bridges, established state and federal parks and forests, and planted over 3 billion trees. Three million men got an opportunity to learn marketable trade skills and save money for the six-month duration of their service.
While based on similar principles, a modern CCC would have a different composition and focus. Unemployment is not as high as during the Great Depression, and women must be included to make the program equitable. But the need for nature preservation and revitalization has only grown since the 1930s.
There have been proposals for a modern CCC, namely from Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH). Kaptur introduced legislation in 2017 that would establish a “21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps” and authorize the appropriation of $16 billion over three years to hire “unemployed or underemployed” Americans. The program would focus on afforestation projects, maintenance and construction of state and national parks, and plant pest and disease prevention.
Most importantly, the program would aim to mitigate the effects of forest fires, floods, and erosion. These resiliency projects would better prepare the country to face the escalating impacts of climate change, and aforestation and restoration projects would create new carbon sinks to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Beyond the environmental benefits of the program, Kaptur’s proposal would require 80 percent of the funds go towards employing participants with a fair and livable wage. That would allocate almost $13 billion toward providing opportunities for work where individuals can acquire marketable skills, increasing their chances of being employed. This is especially useful for training people in trades like masonry that are struggling to attract new workers despite their importance to our society.
While $16 billion is a large appropriation, it is a smaller financial burden than other climate resiliency proposals, and only some include the social benefits of significant job creation. A new CCC is by no means the only program necessary to address climate change, but it would be a positive step toward limiting its impact.
Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg included a “Climate Corps” in his national service policy proposal, which would be composed of Resilience AmeriCorps and a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. This voluntary program, built by expanding existing service opportunities, is another viable option for increasing climate resiliency that could gain the support of a divided Congress. While building on existing programs would provide a solid base for this kind of initiative, its scope would be limited. Only by an act of Congress creating a new CCC could we rapidly and massively engage enough people to do the work needed to be done in the face of the climate crisis.
The CCC was one of the most successful programs of the New Deal and arguably one of the most successful peacetime initiatives ever undertaken by this country. At a time when our infrastructure is crumbling and the places people live are at a higher risk of harm from climate change, we need a big response to a big problem. The original CCC was by no means perfect, excluding women and undertaking some projects that inadvertently damaged the environment, but we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and use them to build a better program.
When we need seawalls, brush clearings, levees, tree plantings, erosion mitigation, and a whole host of other projects to protect people from the onset of climate change, we must mobilize and empower individuals en masse through national legislation. A new CCC would put people to work and pay them well, all while ensuring we are better prepared to face the challenges of a changing climate.