For more than two years, activists and a cohort of progressive members of Congress have called on President Joe Biden to declare a “climate emergency.” He reportedly seriously considered this in the summer of 2022 but decided against it. Critics have said the government’s emergency powers aren’t designed to deal with long-term crises like climate change. Advocates haven’t given up trying to prove that wrong..
But they also are pressing the president to take other executive action, including a broad use of the Defense Production Act, to speed the acceleration of the clean energy transformation. On Monday, 51 Democratic members of Congress, spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, sent a four-page letter to Biden urging him to issue an executive order “establishing a Civilian Climate Corps initiative to work on key conservation and climate priorities.” Included in the signatories are 10 senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Kristin Gillibrand, and Robert Casey Jr. Additionally, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey reintroduced their "Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act." First put forth in 2021, the act would provide participants a living wage and authorize $132.5 billion over five years for the CCC.
The letter to Biden begins:
In the absence of federal action, some state leaders are already moving forward with similar efforts to respond to communities’ climate and resilience needs, with multiple states establishing successful climate corps programs akin to a Civilian Climate Corps. While this is promising, weneed a national and united effort. A central coordinating body, overseen by the White House,will be essential to create a successful and cohesive Civilian Climate Corps. Through interagency collaboration, as well as coordination with state climate corps, other state entities, and local nonprofit organizations, your Administration can realize the vision of a Civilian Climate Corps that establishes a unified front in the face of climate change—one that looks like America, serves America, and puts good-paying union jobs within reach for more young adults.
The letter notes that polls show 63% of Americans support a new CCC.
The idea behind the corps is to put tens of thousands of young people to work on climate-friendly projects like installing solar panels, removing invasive species, restoring wetlands, building resiliency, and other such efforts. Modeled on the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression, which employed millions of men, the idea of creating a modern version has been floating around for more than a decade. Here was my take on it in 2009: Resurrect and Energize and Modernize the Conservation Corps.
The concept gained traction among Democratic progressives on the campaign trail in 2020, and less than a week after he took office in 2021, Biden signed an executive order to form a new CCC. In the Build Back Better Act, $30 billion was included for the corps. But after Sen. Joe Manchin smashed the BBBA, in private negotiations with Schumer, he also hacked the CCC provision out of what came to be named the Inflation Reduction Act.
At the time, Sen. Sanders said: “The Civilian Climate Corps is not only a tremendous opportunity to transform our energy system, but equally important, it allows the young people of this country to roll up their sleeves and get to work on energy efficiency and sustainable energy. And given the fact that young people have led the effort in combating climate change, I think it's something that we should be prepared to do.”
Republicans hated the idea just as they hate anything having to do with addressing climate or with a connection to New Deal programs that the GOP has been dismantling since the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “This is pure socialist wish fulfillment,” calling it a “made-up government work program … for young liberal activists.” Indiana Rep. Jim Banks , the chair of the House Republican Study Committee Committee, caricatured it as "a cabal of federally funded climate police." Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a longtime climate science denier, said (as the coronavirus pandemic raged), “We have over 10 million job openings in the United States. The last thing we need to do is … take [people] out of that job market to protest and declare war against American energy, oil, gas and coal.”
As I wrote shortly after the 2021 CCC executive order was issued, One of the best mandates in President Biden's 'Climate Day' orders: the Civilian Climate Corps:
One thing that Biden’s environmental platform made clear is that there will be a strong focus on environmental justice throughout government agencies, with public investments and programs that generate "good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans, including women and people of color." Among the other pronouncements on “Climate Day” was the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, along with an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and an environmental justice office at the Justice Department, all to "ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices."
Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, is considered to be the godfather of environmental justice, having first written about this in the 1980s when scarcely anyone was paying attention. He told The Washington Post Wednesday, “When you have the most powerful legal department in the country saying that environmental justice is a basic right, I think that is a signal being sent across the country to say that this is real at the highest level.” [...]
Done right, among the things the Civilian Climate Corps can do is leave its participants with compelling stories to tell their children who ask, “Mommy, what did you do to fight the climate crisis?”
A new CCC is just one element in a multitude needed to address the climate crisis. If the president agrees to again issue an executive order in the matter, as he should, it won’t preclude the need for declaring a climate emergency.