Democrats pledge to protect, expand Biden’s climate corps

By Emma Dumain | 09/21/2023 06:26 AM EDT

The president’s order won’t stop progressives from continuing their advocacy for billions of dollars in new spending on a climate corps.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speak with climate activists Wednesday before a press conference held to celebrate President Joe Biden's establishment of the American Climate Corps. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Congressional Democrats are vowing to defend President Joe Biden’s new federal green jobs program from future Republican attacks.

Biden took executive action Wednesday to create the American Climate Corps after Congress failed to include such a program in the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s a step for which many Democrats — particularly progressives — have been clamoring for years.

But the executive order is also one that a GOP administration down the line could easily dismantle. Indeed, Republican lawmakers who have long railed against the concept will now likely look to deny the effort funding.


“Our mission from here on out is that, when we take back the majority in the House of Representatives, that this represents just a down payment on the program,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday.

Biden’s plan relies on cobbling together already-appropriated funds for more than 20,000 young people to be trained and placed in clean energy, conservation and restoration jobs.

Six agencies will work together to put existing programs under one umbrella, with AmeriCorps serving as the central hub. The administration says the program will pay participants a living wage and prepare them for government jobs or private-sector union positions.

President Joe Biden speaks.
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the United Nations in New York Wednesday. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo

Still, the Biden initiative will fall short of what progressives and groups originally wanted. They had envisioned spending tens of billions of dollars to create a “Civilian Climate Corps” that could accommodate as many as 1.5 million participants.

“We want to expand this,” said Ocasio-Cortez during a press conference outside the Capitol with fellow lawmakers and advocates.

Under their “Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act,” reintroduced this week, participants would have been eligible for college student loan forgiveness in exchange for service, and applicants would be recruited from and placed in communities most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis.

“You know we won’t stop in Congress,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “We’ll keep fighting to pass the ‘Civilian Climate Corps for Justice Act’ to supercharge the climate corps, make it even bigger than President Biden announced today.”

Yet they celebrated Wednesday and gave the White House’s overall framework their unequivocal embrace, showing the extent to which climate hawks recognize a victory — even if limited — from an administration that has sometimes disappointed them.

“When we first introduced the Green New Deal there were so many cynics in our politics in Washington and beyond, saying, ‘This isn’t possible, this is too big, this is too ambitious,'” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Well, today we can say that we are starting to turn the green dream into a green reality.”

A long history

Marcy Kaptur.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) was an early supporter of a climate job corps. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Lawmakers have been introducing bills since 2008 to create various federal programs to hire and train for jobs to combat the effects of the climate crisis.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) was an original champion of the cause, advocating for authorizing as much as $16 billion for a climate corps to be housed within existing federal agencies, prioritizing the participation of veterans and Americans who have exhausted unemployment benefits. Her proposals were well known among interested allies but otherwise flew largely under the radar.

By 2020, a double-digit unemployment rate brought on by the pandemic inspired a new crop of lawmakers to introduce legislation to establish service programs on public lands, all inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The most prominent among them was “21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps,” from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), that would provide $9 billion guaranteed funding focused largely on jobs to prevent the wildfires.

At the same time, progressive climate hawks were agitating for the Democratic presidential candidate to embrace what they were calling a “Civilian Climate Corps” — a version of what Kaptur, Wyden and Neguse were all proposing but on steroids.

Green New Deal evangelists Ocasio-Cortez and Markey packaged that vision into legislation, and Biden made the idea central to his campaign platform.

Days after taking office in 2021, Biden called for a strategy to create a Civilian Climate Corps in an executive order; months later, he asked Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that invested $10 billion to establish the program.

Democratic leaders then sought $30 billion when crafting the “Build Back Better Act,” the early version of the party’s climate and social spending package that ultimately became the Inflation Reduction Act.

But it didn’t stop there.

“When it fell out of IRA discussions, folks were directed to keep working on it … it was something the president himself was committed to,” said an environmental advocate granted anonymity to speak candidly.

‘Proven a success’

The press conference Wednesday doubled as an opportunity for Markey and Ocasio-Cortez to thank the activists they credited with helping elevate the cause.

The two lawmakers embraced supporters on hand for the event as well as colleagues, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 presidential contender who ran on eliminating fossil fuels, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who strongly backed including a Civilian Climate Corps in the IRA.

When asked what Congress needed to do to protect the integrity of the new American Climate Corps, which doesn’t have the binding force of law behind it, Markey said the goal should be to show that the program is indispensable.

“Our job is going to be to make sure this is just a down payment, and that in 2024 young people of all ages are going to come out and work and make sure that in 2025 we dramatically increase this program because, by that time, it’s proven a success, and the clear need that is going to unfold as each new storm, each new crisis, hits our country and our planet,” he said.

Other members of Congress, including Neguse and the Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), the ranking member of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, told E&E News earlier in the day Wednesday they agreed.

The executive action’s longevity at the moment, they argued, hinged not on whether it is codified into law or funded through the appropriation process, but rather whether it becomes so popular Republicans would risk political fallout in undermining it.

The administration is eager to show progress quickly, too: It announced Wednesday, as its first American Climate Corps initiative, the “AmeriCorps NCCC Forest Corps,” a five-year, $15 million undertaking that will “deploy” 80 participants “to conserve national forests and grasslands, mitigate risks of wildfire … and support reforestation efforts and wildfire crisis response.”

A website is now live for people to sign up to show their interest and learn more about opportunities.

It could take a lot for Republicans to be impressed, however, as the GOP went to great lengths last year to spin the former Civilian Climate Corps concept as a waste of federal dollars and resources.

“I don’t see Congress codifying this program,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a longtime critic of the climate corps concept.

“We’ve already got a lot of volunteer conservation corps-type groups out there,” he said. “I think this is just duplicative, and it’s an opportunity for the administration to try and expand the federal government.”

But climate activists also didn’t miss a chance to throw a warning to Biden, too, to commit to upholding the American Climate Corps’ integrity and longevity.

“To President Biden: This weekend, thousands of young people were out on the streets, asking for more,” said John Paul Mejia, chief national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, of the demonstrations that are taking place in conjunction with the U.N. General Assembly’s annual conference in New York.

“This morning, you got young people’s attention,” Mejia said. “You decide what you do with it.”