Fire season is on. Remember when we used to call it “summer? ” Remember when trees were just “forests,” not “fuel”?
After the scorching June heat wave, the West is primed to burn, and firefighting resources will likely be overwhelmed. That’s one reason young climate leaders from the Sunrise Movement blockaded the White House last week demanding a Civilian Climate Corps — a national mobilization to put hundreds of thousands of people to work responding to climate impacts and building an equitable clean-energy economy.
The proposal is inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps — one of several massive federal jobs initiatives in the New Deal. At its peak, CCC employed a half million people, building trails and bridges, reducing soil erosion on farmlands, and dramatically improving the health and well-being of millions of families.
The original CCC was a response to staggering unemployment and poverty. Today, the economy is recovering from COVID shock, but youth unemployment remains stubbornly high, and Black workers are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Above and beyond the need to address persistent underemployment, we face an urgent imperative to tackle the rapidly escalating climate crisis in a way that responds to the crisis of inequality.
As overwhelming as these challenges seem, they’re not mysterious. To address the causes of climate disruption, we need to replace fossil-fueled energy and transportation systems with more equitable, clean energy-powered systems. There are no insurmountable technical or economic barriers to this transition; indeed, Washington state is busy demonstrating how the new systems can cost less, improve public health and reduce inequality. We also know how to address some of the impacts of climate disruption. For example, forest thinning and controlled burning can make wildfires more manageable and build community resilience.
We know what to do; the question is whether we know how to act together as a national community at the pace and scale required. The challenge of scale is about physical infrastructure, but it’s also about people. This transition requires enormous numbers of hands and hearts, and a nation keenly focused in its collective determination to do the job.
To meet this pressing need, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have introduced the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act. This new CCC would invest in pathways to good union jobs and prioritize work in historically marginalized communities — the communities that do the least to cause climate disruption and suffer the worst impacts. And, crucially, the mobilization would be big, employing 1.5 million workers over the next five years.
The CCC enjoys enthusiastic public support, with 77% in favor and only 16% opposed, according to Data for Progress, which conducted a survey of 1,566 likely voters nationally. President Joe Biden included a mini-CCC in his American Jobs Plan, which would employ about 30,000 to 40,000 corps members per year. (For comparison, the original CCC deployed 250,000 people in its first two months, in a country with less than half as many people.) But even this token effort was dropped in the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations.
This may be our Achilles’ heel in the fight for serious climate action: The puny state of collective ambition in our nation’s capital. But there’s just no way around it; this climate challenge is nothing if not big, and equitable climate solutions require collective public action on an unprecedented scale. We can’t nickel and dime this thing.
A robust CCC would signal that new bigness and collective agency in our national posture. It would herald a bold national project, putting over a million people to work in good jobs, responding to pressing human needs, actively addressing racial and economic injustice, and tackling climate change with both hands.
So much good work to do. So many people who need good jobs. And it’s getting … So. Damned. Hot. Our house is on fire, and we desperately need a big, bold, public bucket brigade like the CCC.