When President Joe Biden created the American Climate Corps by executive order on Sept. 20, 2023, it marked a step toward keeping a pledge he made nearly three years earlier: to create a new workforce training and service program to deal with global warming.
The White House promises that the corps “will ensure more young people have access to the skills-based training necessary for good-paying careers in the clean energy and climate resilience economy.” By helping Americans get entry-level green jobs, such as solar panel installation and home insulation, it will equip thousands more young Americans to tackle the complex challenges posed by climate change.
As a scholar who researches and teaches about the history of U.S. volunteer service programs, I believe that the American Climate Corps will not provide anything radically new. Rather, it will largely offer the same experiences and work opportunities as an array of programs that already exist. But the Biden administration’s promise of connecting national service experience to long-term careers offers one important change to this model that I believe will make a difference to those who participate.
The inspiration for the American Climate Corps comes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. That New Deal program put unemployed – and mainly white – young men to work on public lands across the country to counter the devastating unemployment of the Great Depression.
Known as the CCC, it was a massive undertaking. Approximately 3 million men passed through its ranks over nine years. Those who served built much of the infrastructure of the country’s state and national parks, planted over 2 billion trees, fought forest fires and responded to natural disasters like floods.
The Biden administration aims to make its new corps far more inclusive in terms of gender, race and ethnic diversity. Rather than alleviating a short-term employment crisis, like its Depression-era predecessor, the American Climate Corps will emphasize launching careers.
So far it’s unclear how big this program will be. The White House has declined to specify a budget after repeatedly failing to persuade Congress to designate any funding for similar multibillion-dollar green jobs efforts because of Republican opposition.
Reportedly, the scaled-down American Climate Corps that Biden has bypassed Congress to establish could be funded through money appropriated to other parts of the government, such as the U.S. Agriculture Department, AmeriCorps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The American Climate Corps, according to the details available, will mobilize far fewer participants than the CCC. The White House plans call for 20,000 people once it’s up and running, only 4% of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ peak enrollment of 500,000 men in 1935.
This new service program is hardly the first to draw on the CCC’s example.