The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a program that existed in the United States between 1933 and 1942. It was a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it brought together millions of young men to help restore the environment and collect a paycheck while doing so. Today, a proposed Civilian Climate Corps could revive this idea and help beat climate change.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order in late January directing the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture to develop a strategy for creating a Civilian Climate Corps. The Build Back Better bill that passed the House in November includes a plan to establish this program. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the top proponents of a Civilian Climate Corps, and she wants to see it employ 1.5 million people over a span of five years.
To better understand this idea, it might be best to look at the program that inspired it.
Neil Maher, a professor of history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark and author of Nature’s New Deal, tells The News Station the CCC was an extremely successful program.
“What it did is it took young men—ages 18 to 25—and enrolled them and put them into 200-men camps across the country,” Maher says. “They undertook forestation work, soil conservation work and also recreational development work.
“Overall, it employed over 3 million young men. They did a lot of good work. They planted more than half the trees planted in U.S. history. They created 800 state parks. They conserved over 40 million acres of farmland.”
It’s important to remember this was during the Great Depression, so it did a lot of good for families that could send one or more of their sons to work for the CCC. It also benefited communities that were near these camps, Maher says, because these young men were paying for goods and services in those communities.
The Civilian Climate Corps could do some of the same work the original CCC did, such as planting trees and helping restore damaged ecosystems, but it could also do a lot more. A Civilian Climate Corps could help install new wind and solar projects, for instance.
“There’s a whole host of work projects that could be undertaken in local communities to help them adapt and become more resilient, but also projects that could be undertaken to help lower our use of fossil fuels,” Maher says.
To make the plan attractive to young Americans, Maher says the job would have to pay a living wage and help them establish a career. To accomplish the second part, it would have to get them involved in vocational courses and learning skills that could be applied in the workforce. The original CCC included these kinds of educational components.
“These young people would be working, but also they would be able to take either classes or take educational programs to help them vocationally so they could learn, for instance, how to work in the green energy economy,” Maher says. “Or they could get credit for their work for higher education.”
Obviously, the new program would have to be a lot more inclusive, too. The original CCC included only young men. It also needs to be run differently, Maher says. The original CCC was a “top-down program,” he says, and it’d be better to have it run by communities.
“The problem with running it from the top down is that some of the programs that were undertaken in the 1930s didn’t benefit local communities and actually hurt some of them,” Maher says. “The idea is that if you get local communities involved early, you’re giving them some say in what’s happening and then they can direct the work in ways that benefit their local communities. It makes it more durable.”
Not only would a Civilian Climate Corps get people to work and give them skills that could be useful after they leave the program, it could change how people see the issue of climate change. The original CCC had widespread effects on American culture, Maher says.
“The original Civilian Conservation Corps introduced the enrollees to the concept of conservation. That had not been a popular idea before. The program was so popular throughout the nation that it introduced the idea of conservation to the American public. The original program, in a sense, democratized conservation.”
Perhaps the Civilian Climate Corps could get Americans to think about climate change in a more personal, thoughtful way. It might also make a big difference when it comes to reaching climate goals. It remains to be seen if the U.S. will establish such a program, but it’s clear people like AOC have made it a central issue and don’t plan on giving up on it any time soon.