Biden’s Build Back Better bill would give young people jobs to fight climate change. What would a new CCC look like? – USA TODAY


Biden’s plan includes $30 billion for the program, modeled loosely after an FDR program during the Great Depression.

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  • Supporters say the jobs should pay at least $15 per hour and include health insurance.
  • Republicans say the program would undermine the American energy industry.

As the only member of her immediate family who doesn’t have asthma or bronchitis, Maricruz Ramirez has seen the threat an unhealthy environment can pose. And as someone who has grown up seeing and smelling the nearby oil fields of the Central Valley that pollute the air and send carbon into Earth’s atmosphere, she has witnessed firsthand the footprint fossil fuels leave behind.

So when the 29-year-old from Bakersfield, California, heard about a proposal to employ an army of young citizens to fight climate change through reforestation and conservation, it piqued her interest.

Ramirez, who temporarily works assisting farm laborers to get COVID-19 vaccines, could get her chance as part of the Civilian Climate Corps, a new federal program proposed as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill currently being negotiated in Congress.

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The program is loosely modeled after the Civilian Conversation Corps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt that gave millions of out-of-work young men jobs building parks and improving communities during the Great Depression.

“The pollution here has always been a major issue,” Ramirez told USA TODAY. “And seeing how California suffers from these different issues – wildfire, drought, pollution – it always seems to be getting worse. So that’s why I thought the idea of the CCC is so intriguing.”

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The bill includes up to $30 billion to organize, hire and deploy hundreds of thousands of people over the next five years to fight climate change in a variety of ways such as planting trees, helping communities transition to clean energy, and assisting local governments to prepare for and recover from disasters made worse by a warming planet. 

There are demands from supporters, notably Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that the jobs pay at least $15 an hour and carry health insurance. There’s a push to include job training and union membership so participants would leave the corps with a marketable skill. There’s also agreement that communities of color – front-line neighborhoods where the impact of climate change tends to be most harshly felt – should be well represented among the CCC’s ranks.

Many details are still to be hashed out among competing proposals but the concept has already drawn criticism from conservatives who say now is not the time to create more government programs, especially one they say would undermine a key cog of the economy.

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“The Climate Corps’ primary job would be to wage war on American oil, natural gas, and coal production,” Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso, who represents the nation’s largest coal-producing state, wrote in a recent column for Fox News. “The Democrats want to have American taxpayers pay young people to fight against the abundant and affordable fuels that the American economy depends upon.”

He’s basically right, said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement, a relatively new but increasingly influential progressive environmental organization that successfully helped lobby the Biden administration to include the CCC in its climate agenda.

“We are trying to employ young people to transition off of gas oil and coal. It is true,” she said. “Because gas, oil and coal are burning the planet and creating an unstable economy.”

What would a job in the CCC look like?

In his executive order to start implementing the program shortly after taking office in January, Biden provided a broad mandate though he still needs Congress to approve the funding before it can take off. 

“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,” it reads.

That would include an army of energetic 20-somethings helping farmers reduce their carbon footprint through new cultivation strategies, helping suburban communities expand wetlands, or helping cities turn abandoned parking lots into parks. Backers also envision the program ramping up insulation of low-income households, expansion of “natural solutions” for stormwater overflow, the installation of solar panels for community projects, clearing brush and other wildfire fuel, and replanting sand dune vegetation to strengthen coastal resilience.

Sunrise is pushing to expand the list of eligible positions to caretakers for the elderly, graphic artists to help promote climate policies and local food drive organizers.

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The participants, or “corpsmembers,” would receive at least $15 per hour, full health care coverage, housing, child care and transportation, under a bill co-authored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., that’s part of the Green New Deal platform. Under the proposal from both lawmakers, they would be eligible for up to $50,000 to pay off student loans or advance their education. Corpsmembers would be eligible for vocational training, an apprenticeship and a job with union membership.

“The Civilian Climate Corps is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put a diverse group of hundreds of thousands of Americans to work on projects that address our climate crisis,” Markey said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Young people are already eager to work on these projects, while earning a living wage, comprehensive health care and educational benefits, and job training for good-paying union careers.”

Markey and Ocasio-Cortez did not include the CCC when they unveiled the Green New Deal in 2019. The idea was pushed by the Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, who more recently got Biden to embrace the proposal borrowed from one of his presidential idols: FDR.

Republicans object to the CCC, particularly the emphasis on unions, a traditional Democratic constituency. They say the program’s primary aim of conservation and climate resilience are better handled through a partnership with the private sector.

“We certainly don’t need a massive new government agency to accomplish this work,”  Idaho Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing this summer.

At the same hearing, Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman said the administration should spend its resources on active management of public lands, such as removing forest debris to limit wildfires, that would have an immediate effect on environmental quality.

“It’s unthinkable the amount of natural resources and national treasures that are being destroyed, and these massive wildfires (are) not going to get any better,” he said. “And no amount of conservation corps or for that matter, large scale efforts, are going to make any difference until we get the policy in place that we can actually go in and manage these forests and take out the fuel loads.”

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Dems: Civilian Climate Corps is not a ‘pipe dream’

Congressional Democrats are proposing a plan to include a Civilian Climate Corps in the budget reconciliation package. They say the Corps would create jobs in clean energy and increase communities’ resilience to climate change. (July 20)

AP

A push for environmental and economic justice

Advocates view the new CCC as more than just a climate program. For them, it’s also a way to address racial and economic inequities.

Maunus envisions the initiative as “interlocking jobs and climate and direct social public spending.” That means recruiting workers from low-income areas and deploying them in “front-line” communities that have historically been ignored even as they suffer the brunt of climate change, she said.

“It can’t just be any CCC, ” she said. “It has to be large enough that it actually is significant. And it’s actually accessible to anyone who wants a CCC job. So it needs to put equity at the very center.” 

The bill led by Markey and Ocasio-Cortez would require that at least half the corps be made up of individuals from “under-resourced communities of need” to help address historic disparities in employment.

“A fully funded CCC can support diversity throughout our clean energy workforce, including age, gender, geographic, and racial diversity,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “This  funding must also create pathways to recruit formerly incarcerated or justice-involved individuals and ensure immigration status is not a barrier to participation.”

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Ocasio-Cortez’s letter was signed by 67 other House Democrats, all of them urging the Build Back Better bill to include at least $30 billion for the program, which sponsors say could support between 200,000 and 300,000 workers. Even if that amount remains in the final version of the bill that still must pass both the House and the Senate, it’s a far cry from what activists had initially proposed: a $132 billion program that would employ 1.5 million. 

Inspired by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps

There are clear parallels to FDR’s CCC which also was created by the federal government to enlist throngs of energetic workers whose mission was to tackle a lengthy crisis, in that case, the Great Depression. 

The CCC, which employed about 500,000 at its peak, enrolled mostly unskilled workers between the ages of 18 and 25 who came from families on government assistance. They enlisted for a minimum of six months and earned $30 a month ($22 to $25 of which had to be sent home to support their families) and received food and housing. 

But the vast majority were white men. And very few received a formal education. Some estimates suggest more than 50,000 illiterate men learned to read and write in CCC camps. Opponents of the Biden proposal say there’s another big difference: the country was suffering through a historically bad economy with unemployment above 25% that compelled the government to find ways of putting people to work.

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“That’s not the case today,” Barrasso wrote in his column. “Businesses are desperately trying to fill job vacancies and get Americans back to work. The Democrats’ climate brigade will only make that harder.”

But Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman at the Brookings Institution contend the current economy does not treat struggling Americans equally.

“The labor market is volatile and uncertain, especially for young people, people of color, and those with only a high school diploma or less,” they wrote in a recent analysis for the left-leaning think tank. “For decades, the United States has profoundly failed to provide sufficient guidance and support to millions of young people transitioning to adulthood, leaving them facing two bad choices: an expensive, confusing postsecondary landscape or a labor market largely offering low-wage jobs.”

A new CCC strategically crafted to address those inequities by providing unskilled workers valuable work experience could make a lasting difference, they write.

Ramirez, who graduated college just before the pandemic, is still trying to chart her career path.

“So it would be amazing to not only be able to do environmental work but to also make a career of it,” she said. “I know a lot of people wish they could do that, just to find a career where they would be doing the work that would help others. Honestly, that’s the biggest dream of mine. And if the CCC could do that, I would definitely jump on board.”