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How Activists Made the American Climate Corps a Reality

Varshini Prakash speaks at a podium next to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and protestors.

Yesterday, President Biden announced the American Climate Corps, a new climate jobs training program tailored to helping young people find jobs in the green economy.

The White House says the program could place 20,000 people in jobs in its first year, on projects like restoring land, improving natural disaster resiliency, deploying clean energy, and more.

Modeled after a program that provided jobs for millions during the Great Depression, all program participants will be paid, and most jobs don’t require previous experience.

The creation of the Climate Corps has been a key demand from activists and environmental groups, like the youth-led Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action.  

In fact, the creation of this program makes good on an executive order President Biden signed during his first week in office

The question is, how — nearly three years into his presidency — did environmental activists achieve this win?

A Look Into the Making of the American Climate Corps

Policy expert and marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson shared a little more into the “policymaking tenacity” behind the Climate Corps on her Instagram, following the news from the Biden Administration. 

She told the story of how the concept of a civilian Climate Corps was proposed by Washington governor Jay Inslee during his presidential campaign — a program modeled after FDR’s New Deal (much like other elements of the proposed Green New Deal). 

After Inslee dropped out of the race, the concept was picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren — and then Biden, when he won the primary in 2020. 

Activists hold signs at a rally that say "jobs, justice, climate action"
Members of the Sunrise Movement stand in support of a Climate Corps. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Instagram

Activists continued to put pressure on elected officials and, in 2021, joined Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to introduce a civilian Climate Corps into federal legislation.

The program was part of Biden’s Build Back Better bill but was cut in the final hour from what became known as the Inflation Reduction Act — still the most ambitious climate policy in the country’s history.

“How job training became partisan and controversial is beyond me!” Johnson wrote in her Instagram caption. 

“But the White House climate team never gave up on this dream to train a generation of Americans for green jobs. And neither did activists.”

The Sunrise Movement also shared a detailed timeline of the activism that led to this big news. It was just this month, in September 2023, that young activists ramped up their efforts and rallied over 50 other national climate organizations to send a letter to the Biden administration, calling for the establishment of the Climate Corps. 

“This didn’t happen overnight. We began the fight for a Climate Corps in 2020 and spent the last three years organizing our communities, protesting, building coalitions, and pushing our leaders to stand with our generation,” the organization shared in an Instagram post

“After years of demonstrating and fighting for a Climate Corps, we turned a generational rallying cry into a real jobs program that will put a new generation to work stopping the climate crisis. This win is proof that together we can win real policies that will improve people’s lives.” 

Despite not having the billions of dollars to get this program off the ground at the scale activists dream of, the White House will work with Americorps to create and implement this program, Johnson shared, and hopefully, as the concept is proven, Congress will provide funds to ramp it up.

“Let this be a lesson to all of us,” Johnson said. “Long game. Don’t quit on big ideas.” 

What Are the Benefits of the American Climate Corps?

The work it takes to adapt to and prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis is extensive — and it’s going to take a lot of people to make it happen. The American Climate Corps acknowledges that reality — and proposes a solution that is good for the planet, the economy, and its people.

“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,” Varshini Prakash, Sunrise Movement’s executive director, who has advised the White House on climate issues, told reporters.

The jobs created from the Climate Corps program will build more resilient communities and develop much-needed green infrastructure. This includes jobs that contribute to the restoration of natural spaces, improved forest health, and scaled installation of electric infrastructure like heat pumps, solar panels, and electric car chargers. 

Plus, the program, which would help the country rebuild from the overlapping crises of the pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, and income equality, is extremely popular, according to Evergreen Action

In 2021, Data for Progress found that 77% of voters supported creating a Climate Corps, including 87% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans, making it one of the most popular climate policies in recent memory. 

Prakash continued: “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.”

Header image courtesy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Instagram

Article Details

September 21, 2023 9:35 AM
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