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Politics

The Climate Jobs Biden Doesn’t Want to Talk About

What happened to the American Climate Corps?

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In 1933, with unemployment running at 25%, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps, an idea with both practical and symbolic significance. It put young men to work (at a wage of $30 per month, $25 of which would be sent to their families); by the time it was shut down during World War II, 3 million volunteers had participated. They planted trees, created trails, fought fires, aided in flood control and soil erosion, and shored up infrastructure around the country. The program helped show the public that a dynamic, aggressive federal government could work to solve problems large and small.

The CCC was so popular that creating a new version of it has long been a feature of ambitious climate proposals like the Green New Deal. Can we recapture that spirit, with an army of young people fanning out through the country to work on today’s key environmental challenges at the same time as they remind us that government can be the solution, not the problem? Wouldn’t that be a boon not just to achieving climate goals but also to the entire progressive project?

It might be. But now that the Biden administration has finally rolled out the American Climate Corps (with explicit inspiration from the CCC) three-and-a-half years into the president’s term, everything about the program — from the number of people it’s supposed to employ to the manner in which it was launched — seems awfully modest. It’s a start, but only that — and it’s a good bet that just a tiny portion of the public has heard about it.

Given how important job creation is to Biden’s governing philosophy and reelection effort, one might think he’d be trumpeting the ACC in campaign ads, interviews, and at every speech he gives. And yet he has not. The administration announced this week that the ACC is now underway, with a website people can visit to find climate-related jobs. The program will deploy 9,000 workers initially, with a target of 20,000 in the first year. Those numbers are pretty small, especially compared to what the CCC looked like in its heyday. To a great extent, though there is a program now in place, it remains mostly aspirational.

The original ambitions for a climate corps were much grander. One bill introduced in 2021 by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrats both) sought to employ 1.5 million workers. Just days after taking office, Biden issued an executive order on climate that instructed agencies to create a plan for a “Civilian Climate Corps Initiative.” Democrats wanted to include it in the Inflation Reduction Act, but by the time that bill worked its way through the legislative meat-grinder and passed in 2022, the funding had been dropped. So the administration cobbled together the ACC from existing climate initiatives, announcing last fall that it would finally come to fruition; this week’s swearing-in was virtual. While the launch got some write-ups in news outlets devoted to the environment (see here or here), it was hardly front-page news.

And where the ACC meets the ground, it will likely not have much of a recognizable identity. The federal government is channeling the money through multiple cabinet departments and then on to a network of public and private organizations, meaning that someone who got a job through the ACC will, as far as anyone in local communities can see, be working for the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Mountain Club, or whichever organization is their ultimate destination. There hasn’t been any American Climate Corps uniform unveiled, so you may not be able to spot an ACC worker in your town even if they’re there.

That has its benefits: Local organizations are connected to their communities, and they could avoid the kind of backlash a program explicitly associated with Joe Biden might produce in some places. One wouldn’t want to see young people in official ACC jackets getting harassed by locals telling them to get Biden’s radical left agenda to destroy America out of their town. Sometimes, the best way to get support for a project is to depoliticize it as much as possible.

That’s true even if on its face the ACC seems so unobjectionable. Who could be against giving young people jobs putting up solar panels or maintaining forests? The basic idea of hiring people to work on environmental projects is almost absurdly popular; one 2020 poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found 85% of respondents in favor of “Re­establish[ing] the Civilian Conservation Corps, which would employ workers to protect natural ecosystems, plant trees in rural and urban areas, and restore the soil on farmlands.”

But conservative elites are not on board. After the White House released its 2025 budget request proposing $8 billion in funding over the next decade for the ACC to expand it to create 50,000 jobs per year, Republicans pounced. Oklahoma Rep. Josh Brecheen called it “a radical green energy training program,” and Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw said “It’s just some big, useless government agency with no real direction.” Crenshaw has sponsored a bill, the Canceling Climate Crusaders Act, to prohibit the government from creating anything like the ACC; another GOP bill to do the same is called the No American Climate Corps Act.

Those bills are purely symbolic, representing opposition not just to the ACC but to whatever this administration wants to do on climate, or anything else for that matter. Biden could declare August to be “Puppies Are Cute Month” and Fox News would do a dozen segments on the terrifying conspiracy to turn your dog woke. That kind of opposition may be inevitable — but not necessarily persuasive to the average voter.

There’s also a cost to depriving the ACC of a visible identity. Building and maintaining support for strong government action on climate means convincing people that government is capable of doing important things, and doing them right. When it succeeds, it makes it easier to create the next program, and the one after that. The more visible those initiatives are to people, especially right where they live, the more they’ll be favorably inclined toward other programs to address climate change. It’s why you don’t see many activists talking about the loss of polar bear habitat anymore: They realized that manifestations of climate change that seem remote and abstract are less meaningful to people than what they can see in their own communities and their own lives.

The ACC can’t be a true successor to the CCC unless it scales up, and that means significant independent funding. Even the $8 billion in the 2025 Biden budget would be just a down payment to get to 50,000 ACC workers; multiply that by 10, and you might achieve something people could really see working.

That’s what made the New Deal so powerful: At a time of crisis, Americans understood that their government was doing monumental things to save the country, and the programs it created could be seen everywhere they looked. If the ACC affects enough lives and communities, the public will see its value. The trick is getting it big enough — and singing its praises loudly enough — so they’ll notice.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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