We Need a Real Green Jobs Program to Fight Climate Change

Joe Biden’s newly unveiled American Climate Corps is set to provide green jobs training to just 20,000 people. It falls far short of the ambitious public jobs program the Left has long demanded.

Hundreds of young climate activists rally in Lafayette Square on the north side of the White House to demand that President Joe Biden work to make the Green New Deal into law on June 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On September 20, the Biden administration announced the launch of the American Climate Corps, a program that will provide green jobs training and placement help to twenty thousand young people. Progressive climate groups, in particular the Sunrise Movement — which helped popularize the Green New Deal as a major left policy goal in recent years — have hailed the announcement as a big victory. The establishment of a Civilian Climate Corps, based on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), has long been one of the group’s demands.

But Joe Biden’s American Climate Corps is a far cry from both the New Deal’s CCC and Sunrise’s initial vision. The CCC employed more than three million people over its nine years, deploying them to do conservation work in farms, parks, and forests across the United States. The Sunrise Movement’s original demand was for a Civilian Climate Corps that would employ more than 1.5 million young adults over five years.

Biden’s Climate Corps amounts to a fundamentally different kind of policy. Rather than creating millions of public sector jobs, the program will merely offer job training and placement assistance for thousands. The Biden administration has said that as part of the initiative it will be “expanding” federal employment opportunities of certain kinds, though without giving any specific numbers; it seems the program will mostly funnel participants into existing government positions as well as private sector jobs.

We should of course welcome expanded government investment in greening the economy and more opportunities for young people to get well-paying public sector jobs. But we shouldn’t confuse the Biden administration’s meager steps here with a Green New Deal–style intervention.

From Job Guarantee to Job Training

When Franklin D. Roosevelt first took office in 1933, the United States seemed on the brink of economic and social collapse. Nearly a quarter of the US population was unemployed.

In an attempt to rapidly bring that number down, in March 1933, Congress and Roosevelt established — along with a number of other public jobs programs — the CCC, which by July employed nearly three hundred thousand young men. At its peak a few years later, the program employed half a million people in every US state and territory. Environmental conservation, once the province of elites, became an immediate concern for millions of working-class people.

The CCC was not without its faults. Like most of the United States at the time, the program was segregated, with separate training camps for black and indigenous men, who were also given more laborious tasks than white workers. The Sunrise Movement’s original Civilian Climate Corps explicitly aimed to rectify the CCC’s flawed legacy by building in racial and environmental justice.

Sunrise’s vision was also animated by the concept of a federal jobs guarantee, a national program that would provide a job for anyone who needed one. In addition to alleviating the suffering of the unemployed, a jobs guarantee boosts collective worker power by ensuring full employment. When unemployment is low, workers face less risk in organizing against their employers (for example, by unionizing), because if their bosses retaliate and fire them, they can easily find employment elsewhere. We’ve seen the full employment effect over the past few years: the low joblessness rate has no doubt contributed to the wave of worker militancy and new union organizing.

Ever since the Green New Deal was unveiled, progressive and socialist climate organizers have seen a federal jobs guarantee as a key component: creating millions of jobs to decarbonize the economy, mitigate the effects of climate change, and create a huge workforce to rapidly respond to climate disasters, all while drastically boosting the power of US workers. The result would be a permanent reshaping of both the environment and the political economy.

That is not what the American Climate Corps will do. Instead, it leans more on a policy from the centrist playbook: jobs training. While in other countries jobs training has been deployed as part of a social democratic “active labor market” policy — retraining workers and then directly placing them in expanding sectors — jobs training programs in the United States have put the onus on the individual to find a job, even if they offer some placement assistance. Crucially, unlike federal jobs programs, they don’t use the power of the state to generate and fill jobs. The evidence is even mixed as to whether they lower the unemployment rate as a whole (rather than in individual sectors).

Biden’s American Climate Corps may help people get jobs in the green economy and boost nascent green sectors — laudatory goals, to be sure — but it is still a fundamentally different type of policy than a jobs guarantee or a Civilian Climate Corps that would directly employ millions of people.

Don’t Stop Believin’

The Sunrise Movement and left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have heralded the American Climate Corps as an unmitigated win. This is understandable — years of organizing went into the fight, and perhaps it was the best the Left could get under the current political conditions.

But even if this is true, it is crucial to remain aware of the American Climate Corps’ severe shortcomings and keep alive the flame of the original, expansive Climate Corps and Green New Deal, anchored by a federal jobs guarantee. While current political conditions may not be ripe for such an ambitious program, environmental conditions — the deadly weather, the extreme temperatures, the climate breakdown — demand it.

We need to build a boatload of renewable energy infrastructure, rehabilitate farmland, harden coastlines and restore wetlands to deal with rising sea levels and more powerful storm surges, and rebuild cities to expand public transit and boost their resiliency to extreme heat. Then there are the jobs that aren’t directly related to the climate crisis, but will nevertheless be needed more and more, such as caretakers for the elderly, who will be at risk of increasing extreme heat.

There will be plenty of work, and only through a national, coordinated effort by the federal government can the United States respond to the climate challenge. A jobs training program just won’t cut it. The capitalist thirst for profit above all else got us into this mess, but we can get out of it by providing good jobs for all — and tilting the playing field in favor of workers in the process.