What’s next for the Civilian Climate Corps?

Throughout the past year, the promise of a new Civilian Climate Corps has galvanized young progressive voters, with the Democratic base energized by President Biden’s support for the initiative.

But now that the legislative vehicle to create such a green jobs training and placement program is stalled on Capitol Hill, the White House and congressional Democrats are under pressure to find other ways to keep the concept alive.

“The young people who came to vote for [Biden] have been climate-driven at an unprecedented rate – it’s an incredibly popular program with them,” said Lena Moffitt, Director of Campaigns for Evergreen Action. “This is a key element that they expect Democrats, both in the White House and in Congress, to achieve this.”

With the fate of the $1.7 trillion climate and social spending program now in doubt, some top appropriations officials have said they will fight to keep House voted appropriations for the Civilian Climate Corps in the annual government funding bill. However, the way forward for such an effort is unclear.

Other Democratic lawmakers have talked about proposing stand-alone bills on the issue, but that’s likely a failure in an evenly divided Senate. At the same time, advocates have argued that federal agencies have the power to birth the program in one form or another on their own.

But none of those options would come with as much money or resistance as the nearly $30 billion investment promised in the now stalled budget reconciliation bill, also known as the Build Back Better Act. .

The Civilian Climate Corps would be modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and 1940s, a New Deal-era enterprise that employed and trained millions of young people for jobs on public lands. Many of the roads, bridges, parks and trails that are still enjoyed today were built during this time (Greenwire, September 10, 2021).

After Democrats on Capitol Hill spent years clamoring for different iterations of such an agenda, Biden threw his support behind the idea in 2021. The version he championed — a name body popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio -Cortez (DN.Y.) and Sen Ed Markey (D-Mass.) – would pay participants a living wage to perform work in the areas of restoration, resilience, and risk mitigation and prevention forest fire.

This was the version included in the “Build Back Better Act”.

Democratic leaders continue to insist that the bill can come back from the dead.

And environmental activists, including Moffitt, say their primary focus right now isn’t on contingency plans to save individual priorities like the Civilian Climate Corps, but rather on sending a message to Congress that the planet cannot not afford to waste $550 billion in investments on the biggest spending bill that would solve the climate crisis on a scale of historic proportions.

Yet as the weeks pass without action on the Build Back Better Act, or even the resumption of negotiations on its future, Democrats will likely find themselves increasingly pressured to show that they have not forgotten an agenda that proved so hugely popular with their constituency.

“We should pass climate legislation immediately, with a CCC that will create millions of jobs for young people and marginalized communities,” said Eden Alem, spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement. “Joe Biden and the Democrats were elected to embrace a bold climate agenda…and they’re just not holding up.”

“See you at President Biden’s office”

Congressional Democrats are working to show they are committed to finding other ways to fund a civil climate body without the Build Back Better Act.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the Democratic chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Interior and the EPA, respectively, both pledged they were working to ensure that a climate services program has strong funding in the 2022 Government Funding exercise which also remains subject to negotiation.

“When my staff and I were drafting the House Domestic Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2022, we put everything through the lens of addressing the climate crisis. That’s why we fought to fund the nation’s first-ever Civilian Climate Corps,” Pingree said in a statement to E&E News regarding the domestic bill passed by the House that proposed $101 million for the program. “I remain optimistic that funding for this essential program will make it to President Biden’s office.”

Merkley, who in the fall introduced a Senate domestic appropriations bill that included $120 million for a civilian climate body and other conservation projects such a body could undertake, also pledged to respect this funding request.

“My Domestic Appropriations Bill supports the President’s request to fund a CCC with annual appropriations for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, creating a baseline and backbone to make the CCC a reality for these agencies,” he said in a separate statement. declaration.

Outside of the appropriations process, House of Natural Resources President Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) told E&E News yesterday that his panel is “currently exploring options” for stand-alone legislation dealing with Civilian Climate. Corps while the “Build Back Better Act” remains in effect. in limbo.

Beyond those avenues, advocates are looking to federal agencies to make the program a reality, to some extent..

Moffitt said the Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates AmeriCorps, has the authority to prioritize “programs that would advance climate goals” when issuing annual funding calls.

She added that the existing Public Land Corps, which is administered by federal land management agencies, “is already involved in a lot of things that go hand in hand with climate action” but could do even more, such as focusing on preparing for forest fires. .

Paul Sanford, director of national recreation policy at the Wilderness Society, noted that Biden’s executive order from January 2021 is still in effect. He instructed relevant agencies to support Civilian Climate Corps activities in their area of ​​expertise and blessed $10 billion for this effort.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law last year would also bolster the goals of the climate body, he said, as would the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020.

“Some things can happen even without ‘Building Back Better’,” Sanford said.

“Make it a priority”

Yet both Sanford and Moffitt agreed that the loss of funding secured by the “Build Back Better Act” was a major loss that could not be replicated through other channels.

“The administration…can and should very well use existing programs to do as much of a climate body as possible – of course, with the distinction that if they don’t get the significant investments from the ‘Build Back Better Act “for this program, that will mean thousands of jobs, rather than hundreds of thousands,” Moffit said.

“Climate change is a big deal, so we need to make big commitments to have a big impact on climate change and achieve climate remediation at large scales, and at those scales that we need to minimize some effects quite important,” Sanford said. .

Without the “Build Back Better Act”, he continued, “we will continue to do good projects, but we will not be able to do them at the scale that we need to do them to mitigate the effects of climate change. “.

At the same time, even the strongest supporters of the Civilian Climate Corps say that the program’s handling of the “Build Back Better Act” has not been without complication or uncertainty.

Due to rules governing the budget reconciliation process, lawmakers decided not to specifically name the program as a recipient of up to $30 billion in funding. Instead, dollar amounts adding up to such a sum, or thereabouts, have been sprinkled across the bill for related climate service projects.

In fact, as advocates explained, the only reason proponents of the bill could credibly claim that the Civilian Climate Corps would get anywhere near that amount of money in the end was not. never been based on statutory language but rather on an agreement between lawmakers and the Biden administration. that the dollars would go towards accomplishing this unique mission.

For Sanford and other Civilian Climate Corps funders, a more ideal scenario would always have been to pass a bill that specifically called for the creation of such a program, by name, with fixed dollar amounts. and guaranteed. There are already half a dozen bills in the House and the Senate that would achieve this goal.

“I’m more optimistic under this administration than under the last that the agencies will make it a priority,” Sanford said, but he added, “if you legislate it, then you have to make it a priority.”

Grijalva, who is now considering advancing one of these standalone bills through his committee, was one of the members who fought hard during the Build Back Better Act negotiations to ensure that Congress had control of at least some of the Civilian Climate Corps money (E&E Daily, October 21, 2021).

In the House Natural Resources portion of the Reconciliation Bill, which the House passed last year, Grijalva was finally able to earmark $500 million for conservation, resilience and restoration projects on public lands managed by Interior. . The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s proposed portion of the “Building Back Better Act” would have included the same provision.

Andrés Jimenez, the executive director of Green 2.0, a nonprofit organization working to expand diversity and representation within the environmental movement, said he agreed with Grijlava: The lack of enforcement mechanisms in the “Build Back Better Act” for a new Civilian Climate Corps was a problem, particularly hampering the goals of attracting diverse candidates and serving the communities most in need.

“The odds of having accountability are greatly improved,” Jimenez said, “if Congress plays a role in a program that’s created, like the Civilian Climate Corps.”

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