The proposal, if it gains federal funding, could help make communities safer and cleaner, while conserving public land and providing decent employment
* Proposal seeks to address climate, unemployment crises
* Biden wants to create jobs conserving 'public lands and waters'
* Critics say the planned corps is vague and too broad
By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Environmental activist Kidus Girma, 26, walked about 400 miles (644 km) from New Orleans to Houston over six weeks in May and June, on a march aimed at bringing hope to communities who have been hit hard by the effects of a warming climate.
Girma and his dozens of companions spoke to those they met along the way about a new federal program - enacted by U.S. President Joe Biden in January and now seeking funds in Congress - that would create jobs and tackle climate change nationwide.
The backers of the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), as the program is known, say it could add up to 1.5 million new green jobs as the climate crisis worsens and parts of the United States continue to struggle with high unemployment.
It is part of a mammoth piece of legislation Democrats moved forward in a key vote on Tuesday, though details of the program remain under discussion including how it would be administered and hiring managed, and how much federal funding it would receive.
The program, which has seen a major surge in support from Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks, is modeled in part on a 1930s Depression-era initiative that put some 3 million people back to work on projects to improve public lands.
On his walk, Girma stopped in places including Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he helped rebuild homes destroyed by last year's Hurricane Laura - the type of work the corps could undertake on a larger scale, he said.
"There are so many homes that needed some basic degree of repair, and they needed to rely on volunteer labor," said Girma, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-focused environmental advocacy group.
"Talking about what a robust, fully funded Civilian Climate Corps could mean to places like Lake Charles was really important," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation soon after the march ended. "People were really excited."
In recent weeks, activists have also demonstrated outside the White House to drum up support for such a corps, as well as targeting politicians in their home states.
"It's something we found our movement really mobilized around," said Ellen Sciales, communications director for the Sunrise Movement. "This is the one that really speaks so much to young people."
Their efforts appear to be getting results - in late July, more than 80 lawmakers signed a letter calling for the corps to be implemented as part of the budget reconciliation package.
On Aug. 9, funding for the proposal was included in an official outline for that package, which could be passed with only Democratic support.
That same day, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major climate science report which highlighted the urgent need to prepare and protect people as extreme weather and rising seas hit harder than predicted around the world.
The legacy of the decade-long 1930s program, called the Civilian Conservation Corps, can still be seen across the United States.
Its members helped create 800 new state parks and 10,000 miles of hiking trails, and planted over 2 billion trees, according to Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at the New College of Florida.
In June testimony on Capitol Hill, Paul said there was "substantial economic and environmental need for a new CCC".
Lawmakers have been proposing federal jobs programs focused on climate-related measures for years, but the idea for the Civilian Climate Corps rose to prominence during the 2020 presidential primaries.
Biden included it in an executive action he signed in his first week in office, saying he wanted to "put a new generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters".
But he offered few specifics and has needed to await action from Congress.
Senator Edward J. Markey, who co-sponsored a key bill on the issue, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was "critical" to include "an equitable and robust Civilian Climate Corps in any infrastructure and budget reconciliation package".
"If fully funded, it would put more than a million people to work in good-paying jobs that will strengthen and rebuild neighborhoods and cities across the country as we battle the climate crisis," he said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Interior Department, which would lead on the corps, said it could not provide further information.
Markey's bill includes an extensive list of potential corps activities, including restoring shorelines and wildernesses, controlled forest burns and reforestation, and making communities more energy-efficient and resilient.
"It could be helping out with public parks but also caring for the elderly, conserving public land and putting up solar panels, creating graphics to promote climate policies in your city or organizing local food programs," Sciales said.
That broad scope has prompted skepticism from some.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized the proposal's vague aims, calling it "part green-jobs program, part behavioral hectoring squad, part social-justice brigade, and part union-recruitment effort".
The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute last month published a series of blog posts on the proposal, questioning the efficacy of big government works programs.
But others have pointed to real need on the ground amid worsening climate change impacts, including more than 100 large fires now ravaging Western states, following the worst wildfire season on record last year.
Creating a new workforce that could help reduce fire risk is now a priority for many, said Tyson Bertone-Riggs, coalition director of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
"Rural communities in particular can benefit from place-based, public lands restoration jobs that combat the effects of climate change and reduce carbon emissions," he said.
Still, some warn that more fundamental policy changes are needed to tackle fire and other climate risks effectively.
"A new corps program isn't likely to be able to overcome key obstacles to conserving and restoring public lands," said Tate Watkins, a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center.
"There are millions of acres of forests in need of restoration and at high risk of wildfire, and public lands are saddled with a massive amount of overdue maintenance."
Sunrise organizer Girma, however, is enthusiastic about joining a program that could help others thrive in a warming world.
"I would 100% want a CCC job," he said. "When communities experience harm like a storm or fire, some communities get worse, and sometimes they get healthier and stronger. So I want to do the work where communities get stronger."
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea; Editing by Abby Seiff and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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