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America needs a Civilian Climate Corps

America needs to get back to work, and we can do that while confronting the intersecting crises of the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, economic inequality, and climate change.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff illustration; Matze/Adobe/Matze - stock.adobe.com

The United States needs more than a jobs program; we need a massive careers mobilization. Livable wages with benefits. On-the-job training supported by local unions. Sweat equity that builds toward racial, moral, and political equality. Work that rebuilds the economy and arrests the climate crisis.

We need a 21st-century Civilian Climate Corps.

America needs to get back to work, and we can do that while confronting the intersecting crises of the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, economic inequality, and climate change. Solutions must have the scale and scope of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But this time, frontline communities and communities of color must be at the center. They have too long been left out of or, worse, excluded from the country’s discussions about jobs, infrastructure, and prosperity.


A bill I introduced last week would establish a new Civilian Climate Corps, which would supercharge the already successful national service programs run through the Corporation for National Service and would employ 1.5 million Americans diverse in race, gender, and age. Over the next five years, corps members would complete federally funded projects that help communities respond to climate change. For example, corps members may work to help weatherize and electrify housing in low income communities, or be part of a team preparing for and installing a community solar facility, receiving relevant training and credentials along the way. Natural climate resiliency improvements, like shoreline and wetlands restoration that protect against rising seas, or environmental remediation that protects from historic pollution would also be part of corps work, with crucial benefits to communities in Massachusetts and beyond. From Groundworks Lawrence to AmeriCorps Cape Cod to the Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation and programs all across the country, corps members would be part of the country’s transition to a clean economy.

Young people know that the environments many of them grew up in — in urban, suburban, tribal, and rural areas — have been degraded by pollution, mismanagement, and injustice. Last year alone the United States sustained $95 billion in damages from weather-related disasters, and over the last five years, more than $600 billion in damages. These costs are skyrocketing over the last decade, far outstripping what states, cities, and communities are accustomed to for the last half century.


The Civilian Climate Corps would both administer a large national service program and provide grants and capacity building to add to and scale the existing network of over 130 local and state service and conservation corps with more than 20,000 corps members. This unique combination of a federal program and partnerships with community organizations, all under the same umbrella, would leverage the network and local expertise of new and existing programs, while at the same time rapidly developing a large number of service projects, in a best-of-both-worlds approach.

Corp members would also receive education and training in coordination with local institutions, including labor unions, to usher them into good-paying jobs, especially good union jobs. They would have access to financial grants of $25,000 per year of service, up to $50,000, to either pay down student loan debt or pay for higher education. They would earn at least $15 per hour, receive full medical coverage, and have access to other services such as child care. The corps would also coordinate closely with local groups to help develop career pathways and union opportunities in new green sectors. Civilian Climate Corps service would be accessible for any American, regardless of circumstance, with a desire to help build a new economy that is sustainable and equitable.


Just as in the 1930s, the nation is facing generational crises that require society- and economy-wide transformation. But we cannot make the mistake of FDR’s New Deal and Civilian Conservation Corps, which excluded groups other than young white men from program benefits. That’s why this new Civilian Climate Corps would provide 50 percent of investments to environmental justice communities, and require that 50 percent of corps members come from those communities. The 21st century Civilian Climate Corps will center equity and justice.

In his American Jobs Plan, President Biden called on Congress to provide $10 billion to help establish a Civilian Climate Corps as part of the proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package. This is a good starting point to support the work already being done, but for a transformational service mobilization to truly meet the scope and scale this crisis requires, I have proposed an effort over 10 times that scale. A new, modern, equitable climate corps that puts Americans to work reducing carbon emissions, building our clean energy backbone, implementing conservation projects, and creating healthier and more resilient communities means we will build back better and we will build back greener.

Edward J. Markey is a US senator from Massachusetts.