Democrats unite around ‘climate corps’ that could employ youth, prevent fires

By: - July 20, 2021 8:02 pm

A poster distributed by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on his Facebook page touting the Civilian Climate Corps (Photo via Facebook)

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged Tuesday to include a Civilian Climate Corps in a $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill later this year, as a broad swath of Democrats rallied around a framework of employing thousands of young people to do conservation work.

Schumer, D-N.Y., appeared with a handful of congressional Democrats, led by U.S. Rep Joe Neguse of Colorado and spanning the ideological spectrum from moderate Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

They said they were united behind the idea of an expansive youthful workforce to address climate issues.

The speakers were among more than 80 Democrats from both chambers who signed a letter to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Tuesday calling for the creation of a climate corps and outlining basic principles.

Several Democrats have introduced climate corps authorizing bills this year, and a report accompanying the House Interior-Environment Appropriations bill includes a provision calling for the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to outline what a climate corps would do.

Schumer and the Democrats who signed the letter said the second infrastructure package this year, expected to be supported only by Democrats and passed through the budget reconciliation process that allows for certain legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority, would be the vehicle to authorize and fund a climate corps.

“I have made addressing the climate crisis in a bold and strong way a primary focus of our debate on infrastructure,” Schumer said at a morning news conference. “That is why I am using my power as majority leader to ensure that the Civilian Climate Corps will be included in the reconciliation package and I will fight to get the biggest, boldest CCC possible.”

The letter called for the program to pay its workers living wages and provide skills training to build a path to higher-paying jobs. The corps would seek to build climate resilience projects, reduce carbon emissions and do other conservation work.

Republicans shrug

At a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing about the climate corps later Tuesday, Republicans largely avoided directly opposing the idea of a climate corps, but said there were more important issues to address.

The National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Russ Fulcher of Idaho, said Congress should focus on forest health, wildfire management and implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act. That law was enacted last year and provides $2.7 billion per year for federal land management.

“Instead of conducting oversight and ensuring we are wisely stewarding billions of dollars of taxpayer money to repair the iconic treasures of our national parks and other federal lands, today we are instead discussing how we can rush into spending billions more,” Fulcher said at the hearing.

Proponents of the corps have not yet settled on a specific spending level.

Biden proposed $10 billion for the corps in his infrastructure proposal. A Neguse bill would authorize $9 billion to establish a corps, with billions more for other purposes.

The price tag and other details would be worked out during the budget reconciliation process, which Sen. Ron Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, said would occur in the fall.

Full committee ranking member Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said a new federal program was premature because Congress must still figure out the right policy for forest and wildfire management.

The National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law that is criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for its burdensome standards, should be overhauled to allow more active forest management, he said. Fire suppression and forest overgrowth have contributed to worsening wildfires.

If more workers are needed to carry out policy goals after they’ve been properly set, Westerman said he would be open to then adding more workers.

Wyden, D-Ore., said at the Democratic news conference that if a climate corps existed today, workers could be sent to fire-prone areas of the West “and immediately start the prevention work that would give these communities the chance to get out in front of these future infernos that are hitting the rural West like a wrecking ball today.”

At the hearing, Neguse, who chairs the subcommittee, pointed out climate change has also created hotter, drier conditions that have contributed to more intense fires.

An updated CCC

The program’s name is meant to evoke the Civilian Conservation Corps, a well-known New Deal program that provided conservation jobs. Proponents said the New Deal model would be an apt one.

“Bottom line: It has worked before,” Neguse said. “It can work again. And we’ve got to get it done.”

Several supporters said the climate corps should depart from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s program in its availability to people who are not white men.

“President Roosevelt’s CCC mobilized millions,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said. “But its doors were closed to millions of Americans, including people of color and women.”

Neguse, an Eritrean-American, said it was not lost on him that a person who looked like him could not have benefited from the original CCC.

The letter called for half of climate corps spending to be on environmental justice initiatives and for half of the corps members to come from communities that experience the most harm from climate change.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.