In the three weeks since President Joe Biden announced his American Climate Corps — a new youth-oriented job program focused on training the next generation of clean energy, conservation, and resilience workers — tens of thousands of Americans have signaled their enthusiasm for the growing green economy. For those at its helm, it’s proof that a modern imagining of New Deal-era community workforces could bring us closer to a sustainable future.
According to newly released numbers, the White House has received more than 42,000 interested sign-ups for the program. More than two-thirds of respondents are between the ages of 18-35, which National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi tells Mashable is a vindication for the Biden administration’s leap into the climate sector — and its desire to build space for America’s younger generations.
Biden launches American Climate Corps to tackle climate crisis with green job training
“All across the country, young people want to be part of the solution. They want to be part of physically building the clean energy economy. They want skills that catapult them into careers in this new and growing clean energy economy,” said Zaidi. “We’ve also been hearing from employers that there’s a lot of value in opening up new pathways to these clean energy jobs. So we feel vindicated. We feel very positive about the momentum. We’re going to keep working to recruit even more folks.”
The interagency partnership — which brings together national service organization AmeriCorps, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Departments of Labor, Interior, Agriculture, and Energy — is a core part of Biden’s climate agenda, a central organizing point of his 2020 electoral campaign and early policy goals. In 2021, the president and congressional Democrats sought a $30 billion allotment for a Civilian Climate Corps during early Inflation Reduction Act negotiations. Eventually dropped, the administration has sought a new pathway forward for the works program.
Tackling the climate crisis doesn’t necessarily mean putting on a lab coat and going into a science building and tinkering with some new technology… we need people who are putting on a hard hat and installing a wind turbine.”
– Ali Zaidi, White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy
“This is inspired by New Deal-era concepts, but reimagined by young people and put into motion by them,” Zaidi explained. His department sees the American Climate Corps as a streamlined pathway into civil service, and as a way to lower barriers to entry for folks of diverse backgrounds who might not be inclined to risk exploring jobs in emerging sectors.
“This really is all about delivering a program where no background is necessary. No experience is a requirement. Everybody is welcome. Because the only way we’re going to meet the moment on climate change is if we have the full team.”
Michael Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, told Mashable that the early sign-up numbers are extremely impressive compared to the organization’s other environmental programs, possibly reflecting a successful federal response to demands for a higher minimum wage, jobs that offer tangible opportunities for change, and pathways for sustainable career development.
“Whenever the unemployment rate is low, efforts like AmeriCorps have a little bit more of a struggle with recruitment,” he explained. “Last year, AmeriCorps supported about 14,000 AmeriCorps members that are working in climate-related fields. So to see this number of over 42,000 signups is really huge.”
One of the first major opportunities for American Climate Corps members will be the new AmeriCorps NCCC Forest Corps, a partnership between AmeriCorps and the U.S. Forest Service providing conservation, reforestation, and wildfire prevention jobs to an 80-person cohort.
The American Climate Corps is going to be completely centered on climate justice and equity.
– Michael Smith, AmeriCorps
In its support of environmental service opportunities and as an independent agency of the federal government, AmeriCorps also partners with, and finances, state-level climate corps — a growing network of jobs programs established nationwide to fill a post-New Deal gap following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Climate Corps. Last year, the nation’s largest service organization invested $120 million in climate-related programs for its service members, which Smith explained is a 20 percent increase from its 2021 spending.
AmeriCorps celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with its predecessor programs — as well as outspoken climate activists — having spent even longer laying the foundation for a program like the American Climate Corps. Even more entrenched in the climate conversation, tribal governments and Indigenous communities around the country have long championed community-led climate programs and solutions. The federal government has stated its intent to collaborate with and support Indigenous communities as part of the American Climate Corps.
“We are excited about how this work will not only address the challenges that our tribal communities are facing, but also involve them and make sure that we’re honoring their practices,” said Smith. “What [AmeriCorps has] heard over and over again is: ‘We have been doing this work since time immemorial. We have the solutions. You bring in the investments and let us lead.’ That really is the secret sauce of America and what will be the secret sauce of the American Climate Corps. We are not telling individual communities what to do. We are letting this next generation lead the work, and we are letting local communities lead the work.”
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Targeting conservation, environmental justice, and clean energy
Initial numbers show there’s resounding interest in the Climate Corps as an option for building sustainable and inclusive futures through conservation efforts, with more than 80 percent of potential Climate Corps members marking their interest in “protecting America’s public lands and waters for future generations” while signing up for the program.
Reflective of a solidified social consciousness among America’s young people, prospective trainees have an eye on environmental equity, too, as about 80 percent of sign-ups designated a desire to build skills that “advance environmental justice to ensure all Americans live in healthy, thriving communities.”
And around 70 percent expressed interest in helping deploy low-cost, reliable, clean energy.
“In the launch of the American Climate Corps, we talked a lot about inspiration from President Roosevelt and the [Civilian Conservation Corps]. But that was — you know — all white boys,” Smith explained. “There was no focus on equity. There was no focus on justice. And so we are completely turning that on its head. The American Climate Corps is going to be completely centered on climate justice and equity.”
The American Climate Corps’ unprecedented interest also may hint at a new understanding of federal job programs and public service broadly, which, both Zaidi and Smith said, could be a pathway to more effective climate solutions.
“There’s a growing recognition that there’s a broader array of careers tied to the question of whether we meet the moment on climate change or not,” Zaidi said. “That tackling the climate crisis doesn’t necessarily mean putting on a lab coat and going into a science building and tinkering with some new technology. That in an equal part and equal measure, we need people who are putting on a hard hat and installing a wind turbine, people who are helping weld the future into place, folks who are taking agricultural practices and innovating on them, so that we are growing things while putting carbon into the soil. It’s just thrilling to see tens of thousands of young people sign up and say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in pathways to do just that.'”
The American Climate Corps anticipates a first-round cohort of 20,000 people, accommodating only half of the amount of those who have expressed interest so far. But growing investments in the clean energy sector, continued interest in affordable clean energy options and green jobs, and a justice-oriented framework for involving disproportionately affected communities may ensure the American Climate Corps is a lasting legacy of the Biden administration.
“Over the last several years, in really unprecedented fashion, young people have come together, organized, marched, striked, and moved the political economy of climate action in a fundamental way,” said Zaidi. “Young people have been a force of nature when it comes to the climate crisis, and now we’re harnessing that incredible power to build the literal clean energy economy.”
A dedicated American Climate Corps recruitment website will launch this winter, to facilitate a streamlined experience for American Climate Corps participants and organizations interested in learning about and applying for opportunities in their communities.
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