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Core Values Drive Creation of Climate Corps

image credit: National Archives
Edward Armstrong's picture
Principal, Armstrong Analytics

Consultant serving clients in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors with a full range of public relations, marketing, and analytical services. Current projects include: working with...

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  • Sep 21, 2021

It was the sight of firefighters wrapping the base of the world’s largest tree in a fire-resistant blanket that prompted a check of the status of the proposed federal Civilian Climate Corps. This type of activity would almost certainly fall within the job description of the program, which includes conserving and restoring public lands, forests and waters, bolstering resilience, protecting biodiversity, and addressing the changing climate generally.


Out west, a historic drought tied to climate change is making wildfires harder to fight. Scientists say climate change has made the west much warmer and drier over the past 30 years, and that will continue to generate more extreme weather and destructive wildfires.


The tree referenced here is the “General Sherman,” a sequoia located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California. It’s said to be the world’s largest tree by volume at 52,508 cubic feet. It stands 275 feet high and weighs over 4.1 million pounds. It’s been around for more than 2,200 years, but is in serious danger of being destroyed by wildfires that are savaging the area.


Civilian Climate Corps Background

To assist in dealing with these problems, President Joe Biden issued a sweeping executive order on January 27 aimed at “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” Section 215 of the document describes the framework for a Civilian Climate Corps tasked to address a wide range of climate-related issues.

While Executive Order 14008 specified that the initial work relating to the Climate Corps be conducted “within existing appropriations,” it was widely assumed that additional funding would be needed. Indeed, a few weeks later, the Administration included a recommendation for a $10 billion investment in the initiative as part of the American Jobs Plan. Since then, multiple legislative proposals have emerged from Congress that would fund the Climate Corps at wildly varying levels (see Congressional Research Service Brief).


At this point, funding for this program is a major wildcard. It is included in the massive $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that is currently being debated on Capitol Hill. The lowest amount envisioned is the Administration’s initial $10 billion request and ranges all the way up to an estimated $132 billion to fully fund the plan in the Jobs and Justice Act sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


Civilian Corps Concept Rooted in History

The idea of a civilian resource conservation program created by executive order is hardly new. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with an executive order on April 5, 1933, as part of his New Deal. While there are numerous parallels to Biden’s proposed Climate Corps, a key difference is program impetus. Whereas the CCC was a jobs program that had the ancillary value of producing environmental benefits, the Civilian Climate Corps is an environmental program that has the side-benefit of producing jobs.


The CCC is considered by most historians as a very successful initiative. Its workforce planted more than three billion trees (over half of the reforestation conducted in our nation’s history) and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide (see History Channel “CCC and the New Deal”). At its peak, the CCC employed over 300,000 Americans earning around $30 per month.


A Whole New Dynamic

The mission and activities of a 21st Century Civilian Climate Corps, while still being defined, are far more complex than FDR’s 1933 version. While work in national forests (e.g. protecting the sequoias from wildfires) and reforestation efforts would certainly resemble that done nine decades ago by the CCC, the notion of climate protection takes on a far broader scope. A short list of examples might include plugging orphaned oil and gas wells to curb methane emissions, restoration of wetlands and watersheds to protect flood plain communities, and increasing the acreage of farmland managed with climate-friendly agriculture practices. On the urban side, weatherization programs to assist low income residents in reducing energy consumption, installation of solar panels and green roofs, and, as Hurricane Ida just graphically illustrated, addressing the infrastructure needs of cities to withstand severe weather events.


While these examples constitute the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” of climate activities, mobilizing a workforce to perform the work is obviously far more complex than handing out rakes and hammers. The Climate Corps will require some form of human resource infrastructure to on-board and deploy workers and a training curriculum to ensure quality. At ground level, issues such as housing and boarding, workplace safety, and supervision will have to be addressed. At all tiers, professional talent will be required from fields such as engineering, architecture, and agriculture.


Fortunately, models do exist, such as AmeriCorps, the Corps Networks, state programs and others that can potentially be involved to help expedite the implementation of Climate Corps and diminish the “reinventing the wheel” factor.


It would not be modern day Washington if there was broad bipartisan agreement on a major programmatic proposal. While the Civilian Climate Corps is not a huge lightning rod for controversy at this point, it’s not being warmly embraced by the minority Republicans either. “We don’t need another FDR program,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee said. Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR) is also skeptical, "Why would we think people are going to suddenly jump at doing really, really hard, dirty, dangerous work because we offer them $15 an hour? That's not going to happen." 

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) counters that the money is not the point. "This bold investment is a necessary response to the climate crisis and prioritizes the maintenance and upkeep of public lands…[they] are not doing it for the compensation. They know it's important to connect to nature and do important work for their state and the nation."

It also remains to be seen how vigorously labor unions may view the Climate Corps as an encroachment into their ranks. That was a snag that had to be worked around in FDR’s CCC.

Ensuring Social Equity

In its day, the CCC was criticized for a lack of diversity in its ranks. Camps were segregated and minorities had virtually no representation in supervisory positions. This time, both the Biden plan and Markey-Ocasio Cortez legislation explicitly attempt to get in front of the environmental justice issue. The White House executive order on climate change references “environmental justice” 24 times and the Jobs and Justice Act specifies that “environmental justice communities receive benefits of at least 50% of [Climate Corps] and Partner Corps projects, and 50% of corps members will be recruited from these same communities.”

The Path Forward

While the Civilian Climate Corps is clearly not going to be part of the strategy to deal with the 2021 wildfire and hurricane seasons, it's very much in the infrastructure and budget reconciliation conversation. Thus it's likely to be included in anything that emerges in those legislative vehicles. The greater threat would be the collapse of the entire infrastructure and budget reconciliation legislative process.

Assuming the Climate Corps survives in whatever bill(s) emerge, it faces major, but surmountable, bureaucratic and logistic challenges. To some extent, those challenges are tied to the ability to prioritize projects that are doable and suitable. As stated, this is not as simple as handing out rakes and hammers.

Yet it’s worth remembering that a big part of why the Climate Corps' ancestral model, FDR’s CCC, is fondly remembered, is that it was a vast government program that actually got meaningful things done on multiple fronts during times of great difficulty. And that is a worthy aspiration.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 21, 2021

The Climate Corps is a really compelling idea, and I hope in practice it would also succeed in bringing climate-related jobs to people of all sorts of backgrounds-- we need more people outside of science/tech/engineering brought into the fold to see that they can/should be putting their training, education, and efforts towards solving the climate crisis

Edward Armstrong's picture
Edward Armstrong on Sep 21, 2021

Thanks Matt. There is also the reality that fewer people are attending college. The Climate Corps offers the opportunity to learn a meaningful trade on-the-job style.


I didn't use it in the story, but an interesting fact I came across researching this. Over 50,000 people learned to read and write while working on FDR's CCC in the 1930s and 1940s. That's impactful.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 21, 2021

That's a terrific point! So many well paying trades out there for those who understand the value, importance, and rewarding nature of those jobs. Thanks Edward

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 21, 2021

As you point out, many of the "forests" burning now were planted by FDR's CCC. The "Yellowstone Fires of 1988" reminded many environmentalists that we always have something to learn.


Making matters worse for the forester and agriculturalist is the dynamic atmospheric CO2 level. Whether or not the concrete jungle is experiencing "global warming," plant photosynthesis from CO2 and H2O is changing. Doing what they did 100 years ago might not be a good starting plan.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 22, 2021

"As you point out, many of the 'forests' burning now were planted by FDR's CCC. The 'Yellowstone Fires of 1988' reminded many environmentalists that we always have something to learn."

The CCC planted trees only in new national parks, on land where agriculture and logging had decimated existing forests and caused erosion problems.

"KCN Complex" is the new name for the Colony and Paradise fires, which have merged. Both were caused by lightning storm on Sept. 9. Neither began in Kings Canyon or Sequoia National Park, but on land where natural wildfires "would have" reduced ground cover and limited their spread (we were forced to cancel a vacation in Kings Canyon due to the fires).

In the past, natural wildfires have been put out, and controlled burns were too risky, due to development - they would have threatened local communities. That uncontrolled fires ended up burning those communities to the ground is a cruel irony.

Would climate change have caused the fires to spread out of control anyway? Should "naturally"-caused wildfires be allowed to burn in limited fashion? Should woodlands residents accept the risks of wildfires as a natural, inevitable phenomenon, like earthquakes? I don't know, but I'd be interested in your opinion on that subject (?).


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 22, 2021

Thanks Bob. I won't pretend to be an expert, but have excessive experience learning how little I know. One thing I know is biodiversity is lacking in forests I see burning, and abundant in healthy ecosystems. Every square meter of healthy forest floor is alive.


Plantation forestry and agriculture are very easy to identify. The photograph in this article's header is likely how much of California looked during CCC, before the Hoover Dam allowed "alpine meadows" to become accepted as normal.


Here is a related article on the subject I like:

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 22, 2021

From your source:

"Keep existing forests standing. Global Forest Watch, an online platform that monitors forests around the world, estimates that the Earth lost an area of rainforest the size of New Mexico in 2020. It is much more effective to prevent clearing of existing forests than to try to put them back together again. And existing forests provide benefits now, rather than decades into the future after trees mature."

Greens decry cutting down a few thousand tons of rosewood each year, but are blind to the 6 million tons of old-growth U.S. trees, euphemistically re-labeled "biomass", that are exported as wood pellets each year to Europe - where 60% of renewable electricity is generated by burning them.

"Burning rainforest is bad, burning biomass is good." Got it.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 24, 2021

I don't know where you get all your numbers, Bob. One number I saw recently was $350 will buy 50 cu. yd.s of wood chips delivered free within a radius. There is a pile of wood chips nearly as big as the local town derived from forests, utilities, roads, and homes management. The pile is along a state highway with a small sign and likely presents a fire concern including spontaneous combustion.

Edward Armstrong's picture
Thank Edward for the Post!
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