Democrats push forward 'Civilian Climate Corps' with support from Biden and AOC

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·5 min read

As part of their renewed push for the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and other congressional Democrats have introduced a “Civilian Climate Corps” service plan to both employ Americans and tackle climate change.

“Livable wages with benefits, on-the-job training with local unions, sweat equity that builds racial, moral and political equality,” Markey said Tuesday at an event outside the Capitol. “Work that rebuilds the economy and saves the planet all at the same time. This is the 21st century Civilian Climate Corps.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a news conference held to re-introduce the Green New Deal at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., flanked by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., reintroduces the Green New Deal at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

The Civilian Climate Corps would seek to employ 1.5 million Americans over five years on projects like building energy-efficient schools and housing, providing access to transit, expanding the range of electric vehicles and protecting conservation lands and waterways. It further calls for coordination between the federal government and local organizations, governments and unions, along with a $15 minimum wage for workers, funding for student loan relief and tuition, childcare, eldercare and job placement programs.

The ambitious plan faces an uphill battle in Congress, where Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, in which 60 votes are usually required to advance legislation. Republicans have fiercely criticized the Green New Deal, and moderate members of both parties have shown increased wariness toward big spending proposals after the Democrats advanced their $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package earlier this year.

But the Civilian Climate Corps represents a creative approach to addressing the climate-change issue, and advocates hope to gain traction by highlighting more tangible benefits of employment and public works projects.

The plan draws its inspiration from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal-era public relief program that gave unemployed young men jobs working on environmental projects. While the 1930s program primarily benefited white men — racially segregated work camps were common — co-sponsors of the new effort have said it will be an opportunity to promote equity in underserved communities.

“What we’re going to do is make sure communities like Flint, Baltimore, the South Bronx, St. Louis, rural communities whose infrastructure was never properly built in the first place, are first in line to rectify the injustices of the past and make sure they get everything they need to thrive in the future,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) next to Senator Ed Markey, D-MA, speaks during a press conference to re-introduce the Green New Deal in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on April 20, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Ocasio-Cortez speaks at Tuesday's press conference on the Green New Deal. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The legislation would also allocate at least 50 percent of the funding for “environmental justice” communities, which would also provide at least 50 percent of the program participants.

Becca Ellison, policy manager for Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group that worked with Markey’s office on the proposal, told Yahoo News that the goal is to lift up communities “that have been overburdened with pollution, whether it be from power plants, highways or superfund sites.”

“Those communities are often Black and brown communities who are also dealing with the result of systemic racism in other parts of their lives,” Ellison continued. “Identifying those communities, lifting up the voices of people in those communities, recruiting and paying folks from those communities to give back to build a career for themselves and a better future of the places they live, that’s the vision here.”

While many on the left have criticized President Biden for not going far enough on climate change in his proposals, he has expressed his support for this plan. Shortly after taking office, Biden issued an executive order in which he pushed for the establishment of “a new, modern-day Civilian Climate Corps — that I called for when I was campaigning — to heal our public lands and make us less vulnerable to wildfires and floods.”

In Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan proposal, focused on infrastructure, $10 billion is allocated to “put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.” Biden has consistently promoted the idea that jobs tied to fighting climate change will be a boon for the economy — a pushback against Republicans who argue that the efforts will drag down businesses.

President Joe Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris looking on makes remarks about the Derek Chauvin Trial, at the White House, Tuesday April, 20, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via Getty Images)
President Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris looking on, speaks at the White House on Tuesday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via Getty Images)

Supporters of the bill have pointed to a new Data for Progress survey that showed 65 percent support for the plan among all Americans, but the program faces serious headwinds in Congress. Republicans in Congress have been resistant to working with the Biden White House on popular proposals, providing zero votes in the March COVID-19 relief plan and rejecting his broad infrastructure proposal.

Despite the difficult path ahead, advocates are ready to push for the bill, starting with making sure that a “down payment” for funding of the program is included in the final legislation of the infrastructure plan that is currently being negotiated.

“Progressives are excited about this,” Ellison said. “Young people are excited about this, and channeling that energy and capturing it to the benefit of all makes it an exciting part of the American Jobs Plan.”

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