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Biden Unveils American Climate Corps, Smaller Than Its New Deal Inspiration

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President Joe Biden stands at a lectern outside
President Biden promised to create the Climate Corps during his first week in office. It's a program meant to appeal to young climate activists. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The White House on Wednesday unveiled a new climate jobs training program that it says could put 20,000 people to work in its first year on projects like restoring land, improving communities’ resilience to natural disasters and deploying clean energy.

The American Climate Corps is modeled after a program that put millions to work during the Great Depression. President Biden’s climate policy adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters that the program has broader goals beyond addressing the climate crisis.

“We’re opening up pathways to good-paying careers, lifetimes of being involved in the work of making our communities more fair, more sustainable, more resilient,” Zaidi said.

The program will pay participants, and most positions will not require previous experience. The administration is also proposing new regulations aimed at making it easier for participants to enter the federal public service after the program.

The announcement has been in the works for some time

Biden first called for the government to find a way to establish a “civilian climate corps” in an executive order during his first week in office. The president said that he hoped the corps would “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.”

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The idea of a climate corps began with progressive environmental activist groups, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

“We need millions of people, especially young people, employed to do the essential work of averting climate catastrophe and building a fair and equitable new economy,” said Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, who has advised the White House on climate issues.

“I am thrilled to say that the White House has been responsive to our generation’s demand for a Climate Corps and that President Biden acknowledges that this is just the beginning of building the climate workforce of the future,” Prakash told reporters.

Biden has been criticized by young climate activists

When he took office, Biden named tackling climate change as one of his top four priorities, and announced a goal of slashing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

His 2022 Inflation Reduction Act — some $369 billion in climate incentives and spending — is expected to get the country close to that goal.

But Biden has faced intense criticism from some factions of the environmental movement, particularly after he approved a large-scale drilling project known as Willow in northern Alaska. That decision directly contradicted a campaign pledge to bar all new drilling on federal lands, and polling showed a decline in his approval ratings on climate.

Since then, Biden barred federal drilling on millions of acres of federal property, a measure aimed at wooing back the young, climate-conscious voters who played an important role in his electoral coalition.

The Climate Corps is more modest than some had hoped

Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., had pushed for more funding for the climate corps program, but that did not transpire, meaning the program is likely to be smaller in scope than early proposals (PDF).

It’s also much smaller than its predecessor: the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal-era program that ran for ten years and employed millions restoring public lands and building infrastructure for the country’s national parks.

There is another key difference, too. While the Conservation Corps primarily employed young, white men, the White House says that the American Climate Corps is designed to attract participants from disadvantaged communities disproportionately impacted by the changing climate.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.


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