WASHINGTON — Democrats aim to pour tens of billions of dollars into a New Deal-style program that would hire young people to work on projects to protect communities and the environment from disasters that are growing more destructive due to climate change.
Momentum for a Civilian Climate Corps has been steadily building since President Biden called for its creation in March. Though the program will not directly reduce the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, it is a top priority for environmentalists as part of a $3.5 trillion spending bill Democrats hope to pass this fall.
Republicans have denounced the program as a boondoggle that would create eco-vigilantes who, as one lawmaker recently warned, will “report who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking.”
But the biggest hurdle may be Democrats themselves, who have yet to agree on how to design a climate corps.
Liberal lawmakers aligned with prominent environmental groups say they want about $30 billion — three times the amount Mr. Biden suggested — to fund the program under the umbrella of AmeriCorps. Sometimes referred to as the domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is a federally-funded national service program that supporters said could easily expand to take on climate-focused work.
But in recent weeks, several senior House Democrats have challenged that plan, arguing billions of dollars should not be rushed out the door to an agency that would be saddled overnight with recruiting and training thousands of workers in clean energy and climate projects.
“Everybody I think wants to help the climate,” said Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, who leads the House Committee on Education and Labor that will oversee creation of the climate corps. But he said, “If the goal is work force development, I think we have more effective ways to do it.”
He and others have instead advocated expanding existing apprenticeships and job training programs through the Department of Labor and other agencies. The discussion is expected to come to a head Thursday when Mr. Scott’s committee debates labor components of the $3.5 trillion budget package.
The Civilian Climate Corps is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s which put 3 million men — it was explicitly single men aged 18 to 25, and mostly white men at that — to work building trails and campgrounds, fighting forest fires, planting trees and building dams across the country.
Supporters of the reimagined corps said they intend to ensure diversity among workers and managers, as well as a $15 per hour wage and health care benefits. They envision climate corps workers installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings and providing water and other supplies during heat waves and storms.
Federally-funded corps members could transform local efforts to fight climate change, said Tonya Gayle, executive director of Green City Force, a New York-based nonprofit group that prepares young people who live in public housing for technical careers like solar and wind production, energy efficiency and urban agriculture.
“The people in the communities know what’s best in terms of solutions,” Ms. Gayle said. “National service in a civilian climate corps is a powerful thing,” she said, adding that local voices need to be part of the broader national conversation about climate change.
Low-income communities and people of color tend to be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of historic inequities. In recognition of that fact, legislation introduced by Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, both Democrats, would require that at least half the members of a climate corps come from “under-resourced communities of need.” In addition, at least half the investment would support projects in underserved communities, with at least 10 percent spent in Native American lands.
Their bill, which has support from major environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement, would create the climate corps as part of AmeriCorps.
“Tens of thousands of young people are going to be working to future-proof our country,” Mr. Markey said. Within five years, he added, a Civilian Climate Corps “will become part of the personality of the country in terms of how a whole new generation views climate change.”
That has some Republicans worried.
“What exactly does that mean?” Representative Tom McClintock of California asked at a recent hearing. “Does it mean a taxpayer funded community organizing effort? Young climate pioneers in every neighborhood to report on who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking, who is spreading forbidden climate disinformation?”
Others noted that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s conservation corps was created when the United States was suffering from 20 percent unemployment. That’s not the current situation, where the national unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in August and many companies are having difficulty finding workers.
Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the top Republican on the House Committee on Natural Resources called the Civilian Climate Corps a “make-work program” that will “compete against American businesses at a time when ‘help wanted’ signs remain in the windows.”
Ultimately, however, Republicans are not in a position to influence the package since the party has already signaled members will unanimously oppose the broader $3.5 trillion budget bill. The fate of the program is up to Democrats and whether they can reach agreement, supporters of the climate corps said.
Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Foundation, said he is optimistic that if Democrats manage to pass the spending bill, it will include a new Civilian Climate Corps.
“Any time you’re negotiating over how to do it rather than whether to do it, you’re in a pretty good position. And we’re negotiating over how,” he said.
Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who has introduced legislation to create a new climate and conservation corps every year since 2008, said she wants to recreate the experience that the government gave to her father. As a young man in the 1930s Joseph Kaptur, the youngest of 16 children, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps helping to drain the Erie Canal and build roads.
“It was limited money, but he could put food on the table,” Ms. Kaptur said. Roosevelt-era corps members, she added, “were proud of what they did, and they were proud of building America. This generation needs this experience.”
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