One of the best mandates in President Biden’s ‘Climate Day’ orders: the Civilian Climate Corps

One of the best mandates in President Biden’s ‘Climate Day’ orders: the Civilian Climate Corps

One of the many CCC posters produced for the New Deal program.

Aside from Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the most popular New Deal program with the general public in the 1930s. Established by Congress in 1933 and implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 31st executive order less than a month after he took the oath of office in the depths of the Great Depression, the CCC eventually employed 3 million young, unmarried, urban male volunteers over a nine-year period. They planted 3.5 billion trees, developed national and state parks, cut trails and built park shelters, fought forest fires, improved game-fish streams, conducted groundwater surveys, engaged in wildlife projects including building a wildlife refuge in Michigan, and participated in operations to control floods and soil erosion. For this they were fed, sheltered, and paid $30 a month, $25 of which had to sent home to their families, most of whom were on local relief. Given the still-high illiteracy levels in parts of America 90 years ago, many of them were taught how to read through a CCC education program.

In an omnibus executive order Wednesday—Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad—President Joe Biden announced a reinvention of the program that The New Republic in 1935 named “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” The heads of the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and other departments now have 90 days to present their plan to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.” Unlike the original program, this one will avoid the brazen racism and recruit women as well as men. While a modernized CCC has often been proposed, including by me in 2009, the Civilian Climate Corps, as the new version is named, is one of the many climate-related recommendations of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force and a concept Biden made note of on the campaign trail. 

Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida, told Adele Peters at Fast Company that the CCC jobs have to be good ones paying “prevailing wages so that these workers don’t undercut other workers.” The original CCC was designed exclusively for mostly unskilled manual labor.

Paul argues that the program could also include an educational component; the original CCC helped teach many participants basic literacy. “If workers are employed in the Civilian Climate Corps, why can’t they access something akin to the GI Bill, which is provided to members of the armed services, where the government assists them in obtaining an education? I think that we can be creative in thinking about how this program could look,” he says. It could also potentially include different types of work, such as funding for artists to help build support for the broader work of protecting nature and fighting climate change.

There’s likely to be strong interest in enrolling. “When I ask my students, and I’ve asked multiple classes, ‘How many of you would go spend a year or two working in a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps doing climate work for $15 an hour?’ 80% of the hands in the room go up,” he says. “Folks are so hungry to do something like this. Primarily because they care about the planet, and they’re seeing it go up in flames before their eyes. They’re just desperate to give back and find some way to do their part to ensure that we preserve a habitable planet for ourselves and for the generations to come. They’re really committed to leaving the planet better than we inherited it.”

It’s up to the interagency group to propose exactly how the new CCC will be funded, administered, and overseen. 

African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Cook County, Minnesota, 1935.

One thing that Biden’s environmental platform made clear is that there will be a strong focus on environmental justice throughout government agencies, with public investments and programs that generate “good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans, including women and people of color.” Among the other pronouncements on “Climate Day” was the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, along with an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and an environmental justice office at the Justice Department, all to “ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices.”

Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, is considered to be the godfather of environmental justice, having first written about this in the 1980s when scarcely anyone was paying attention. He told The Washington Post Wednesday, “When you have the most powerful legal department in the country saying that environmental justice is a basic right, I think that is a signal being sent across the country to say that this is real at the highest level.”

Bullard has reason to be cautious, however. An environmental justice executive order was issued in 1994 by the Clinton administration. The good words produced few actions.

A serious, institutionalized focus on environmental justice should be embedded in all the climate (and other) programs that the Biden-Harris team is poised to implement. That’s certainly the message being sent in these early days of the administration. This is a far cry from what happened with the original CCC. When it began, it was fully integrated, with veterans, white people, and African Americans all working together in integrated camps. But many local communities, and not only in the South, objected to this. Within two years, Jim Crow had  joined the CCC and Black people were placed in segregated camps. Separate programs were also developed for veterans and American Indians in their own camps.

Black Americans in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Virginia in 1936. 

Robert Fechner, director of the Emergency Conservation Work program overseeing the CCC, assured critics that there was no discrimination in the camps, with workers there getting the same clothes, food, and work gear as those in the white camps. African Americans, he asserted, were happy being segregated, echoing earlier generations who claimed slaves were happy until abolitionists riled them up. With the camps segregated, recruitment of Black youth for the program fell over the years even though African Americans were disproportionately afflicted by unemployment. In parts of the South, Black youth were kept out of the program altogether. The CCC placed a ceiling of 10% on  the enrollment of Black Americans. In 1941, a fresh effort was made to recruit African Americans because white enrollment had fallen off as the war in Europe boosted the U.S. economy.

Eventually, some 250,000 Black youth participated in program. The Living New Deal, a research and educational organization, pointed out that while the 10% limit matched the percentage of African Americans in the total population, it was “nowhere near proportional to the number of [Black people] eligible for relief during the Depression.”

Jeremy Brecher, research and policy director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said the “devil is in the details” as far as the new CCC’s potential success goes. Setting strict recruitment diversity standards, ensuring vigorous oversight, and guaranteeing a $15 minimum wage for corps members are fundamental to that success, he said.

Done right, among the things the Civilian Climate Corps can do is leave its participants with compelling stories to tell their children who ask, “Mommy, what did you do to fight the climate crisis?”

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