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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Uncle Sam Wants YOU for Climate Corps

Air Date: Week of

The American Climate Corps will partner with existing programs like AmeriCorps. (Photo: EL Gringo, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On Earth Day President Biden announced the official launch of his new climate-focused jobs program, the American Climate Corps. Maggie Thomas is Special Assistant to the President on Climate and joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to discuss the thousands of jobs the Corps offers in community outreach, biological surveys, invasive species removal and more.


DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

At an Earth Day event in Virginia just outside Washington, DC, President Biden announced the official start of his new climate-focused jobs program.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: It's patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Peace Corps and America Corps. Like them, it brings out the best in young people to do what's best for America. And we will put tens of thousands of young people to work at the forefront of our climate resilience and energy future, clean energy future. Today, I'm proud to announce that Americans across the country can now apply, now apply to become the first members of the American Climate Corps.


O’NEILL: All kinds of skills and industries are needed to address the climate crisis, so the jobs board for the Corps lists everything from community outreach to biological surveys to invasive species removal. Maggie Thomas is Special Assistant to the President on Climate and is here to explain just what the American Climate Corps has to offer. Maggie, welcome to Living on Earth!

THOMAS: Thanks so much for having me, really excited to be here.

O'NEILL: So exciting news, the website is now live for the American Climate Corps. Walk me through the history of this program. How did we get to this point?

THOMAS: Yeah, it's a really great question. And I think one of the most exciting parts about President Biden's American Climate Corps is really that it harkens back to as early as the 1930s, when President Roosevelt originally launched the Civilian Conservation Corps or the CCC. FDR launched this program to put millions of young men to work. And really with the idea that our economic crisis at the time, and the environmental crisis and the crisis of the Dust Bowl, were intertwined, they were one and the same. And so through a public works program, and that the CCC ultimately became really one of the New Deal's most popular programs, FDR put hundreds of thousands of young men to work. And even though today we have new crises, and we have a whole new diverse generation of young people who can be put to work, we thought to ourselves, it's a really good idea. Let's see if we can do it again. And so that's what President Biden's American Climate Corps is all about. It's this idea that in every community across the country, everybody has a role to play, we need to field a full team to tackle the climate crisis. And we want to make sure that at the federal level, we're providing jobs in communities across the country. So right now you can go on to climatecorps.gov, you can apply, we have about 2,000 positions that are listed with lots and lots more on the way. And it's really exciting.

President Biden delivers a speech commemorating Earth Day on April 22, 2024. (Photo: The White House, YouTube)

O'NEILL: Alright, so looking at the website, I think there are some programs that are sounding pretty familiar to some of our listeners, AmeriCorps for one. What kind of jobs are going to be open through that?

THOMAS: Yeah, so the way the American Climate Corps works is that we're going to leverage a number of implementing partners, which means that we're working with federal agencies, we're actually working across seven federal agencies to launch this historic initiative. We're working with local nonprofits, grantees of those federal programs, and state-based Climate Corps as well. So there have now been 13 states that have come forward and launched state-based Climate Corps programs that are at varying stages of implementation. And we want to make sure to leverage every single one of those programs. We know there's incredible work that's going on across the country right now. And it is our job to lift that up and expand those opportunities. So AmeriCorps is a key partner in the American Climate Corps, they are actually the lead agency, we are establishing an ACC hub at AmeriCorps. And, you know, there are a lot of benefits that come from being in an AmeriCorps position as well, one of which is a Seagull Education Award, which means that if you complete your term of service, you can get a little over $7,000 of student debt relief that can be used for student debt, like I mentioned, or for future education. So there are certainly a lot of benefits that come from AmericaCorps-specific positions. The other thing that you'll notice is that all positions that are listed on the website, no matter what implementing partner that they're being hosted in, all have some kind of climate or environmental impact. That means climate, it means clean energy, it means climate resilience, which is a new burgeoning workforce that we really need to develop today. And we want to make sure that we're equipping this next generation with the tools to succeed in the workforce of the future. And so that's really what the positions that you see on the website are all about.

The American Climate Corps is in part inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which put hundreds of thousands of young men to work in the 1930s. (Photo: Richard, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

O'NEILL: And another program that I'm seeing is the Forest Corps. What's that one about?

THOMAS: Yeah, the Forest Corps is a new partnership that we announced last fall between AmeriCorps and the US Forest Service. One of the really, really tragic impact of the climate crisis is the large-scale wildfires that we're seeing across this country. We're seeing wildfires burn hotter, faster, and they are more devastating than ever before. And so one of the thoughts that we had was how do we make sure to give young people the tools that they need to succeed in case they want to become wildland firefighters? We know we're going to need a whole lot more wildland firefighters than we have today to tackle the impacts of the climate crisis. And we wanted to make sure that through those training opportunities, we were actually giving young people an opportunity to make an impact today during their term of service. And so you know, you can imagine as part of Forest Corps, you will have young people all across the country, say, clearing defensible space around communities that are in the wildland urban interface, where you have hazardous fuels right next to home. So we want to make sure to be protecting those homes, doing the same, you know, clearing brush and forests that are at high risk of wildfire and doing that in line with the Forest Service's wildland fire crisis strategy, to make sure that when the forest says, you know, we've got priority areas, that we're putting young people to work in those priority areas to get the job done.

O'NEILL: And there's also jobs related to FEMA, there's gonna be the FEMA Corps. What will that look like?

THOMAS: Yeah, absolutely right. I think disaster response and preparedness are two absolutely critical careers that we can imagine needing to expand a whole lot more in a future warmed world. So one of the things that we need to do is to be able to prepare for those disasters, to make sure that communities know when disaster strikes, what do you do? Where do you go? What are the resources that are available, so that the community is most prepared as possible. And once disaster does strike, which hopefully it doesn't, that we are sending people in as quickly as possible to repair and rebuild. And to do that in a way that is cleaner, that is better, that is stronger than ever before.

The Forest Corps will collaborate with the US Forest Service and AmeriCorps to train workers in wildfire mitigation. (Photo: Pacific Southwest Forest Service, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

O'NEILL: Now, the Biden Harris administration has this Justice40 goal, which as I understand it, is where 40% of the benefits of government investment in things like clean energy or sustainable housing must be directed towards disadvantaged communities. How is that reflected in the American Climate Corps?

THOMAS: Yeah, we want to make sure that the American Climate Corps looks like America, first and foremost. We know that we've got a new diverse generation of young people that want to be put to work in careers in climate, clean energy, and climate resilience. And we want to make sure that we're giving them the opportunity to do that, and the tools to succeed in the workforce of the future. And so one of the ways that we do that is we just make a commitment. And we say, look, we know that the American Climate Corps needs to serve all of communities around the country. And it needs to look like all of those communities. And that's a really, really important goal for us, as the President has been building this program. We also know that there are some communities that are indeed hit first and worst. And so we want to make sure that we're prioritizing those communities when we're selecting projects and locations for those folks to go to work in.

O'NEILL: And so if you're listening to this story, and you're going, sounds pretty neat, I'm in, how does one join the American Climate Corps?

THOMAS: It's simple, all you have to do is go to climatecorps.gov, look for a position that is exciting to you and apply directly through the site. The first class of the American Climate Corps will be deployed in June of this year. And the website will be live and rolling and taking applications for all of the positions that we're recruiting for over the course of the next several weeks and months.

Other American Climate Corps jobs will focus on disaster response and preparedness. (Photo: Nicholas Erwin, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)

O'NEILL: I know there's going to be so many jobs, so this really is probably not a one answer fits all, but how permanent are these positions going to be?

THOMAS: Yeah, so all the positions in the American Climate Corps are term limited, which means they are likely going to be, you know, you could imagine a summer term position, perhaps up to a year. Some of the positions themselves, you know, may get extended, and that's sort of up to the American Climate Corps member and their project host, of course, but the idea is that these really are term limited positions, to fill a clear and present gap and need in climate impact that we know needs to happen in communities across the country, and make sure that young people have the skills in order to succeed in the workforce of the future. And so these are not permanent jobs, but they are giving young people an opportunity to be put on a pathway to a permanent job.

O'NEILL: Now, this was not the only part of the President's announcement. What else happened on Earth Day?

THOMAS: One in particular, we're really excited about, which is a new partnership with the North American Building Trades Unions nonprofit partner called Trades Futures, and NABTU and Trades Futures and the American Climate Corps got together because we really wanted to put our heads together around how do we ensure that American Climate Corps positions really do lead to good paying union jobs? What are the skills that we need to make sure that we're equipping young people with in order to put them on a pathway into registered apprenticeships, if that's the way they want to go, or perhaps a career in the federal government. And so this new partnership announcement that the President made on Monday is going to make the NABTU preapprenticeship curriculum, which is really the industry leading curriculum on training and workforce development, available to every American Climate Corps member during their term of service. And that's really exciting, because it means we're making good on the promise that we made, ensuring that these jobs really do lead to good paying union jobs. The other announcement that the President made on Monday that I think is really exciting, is that a majority of the American Climate Corps members are actually going to have an expedited pathway into federal service, again, if that's the route that they choose to go. We really saw the American Climate Corps as an opportunity to expand pathways. And that's what these two announcements are all about, pathways into good paying union jobs, if that's the trajectory that these young people want to go on. Or if you want to go directly into the federal service, there's now an opportunity and an expedited pathway to do that, if you're a member of the American Climate Corps. And the goal is to make joining the American Climate Corps as attractive as possible. We know that there is an infinite number of climate solutions and work to do out there in communities across the country. And so we want to make sure that we're equipping young people with the tools to do just that.

Maggie Thomas is the Special Assistant to the President for Climate and Senior Advisor for Strategic Planning, White House Climate Policy Office. (Photo: Courtesy of Maggie Thomas)

O'NEILL: So I mean, this is sounding really exciting. It's all sounding really promising. The thing is, we are, in fact, in an election year, and the curiosity is, how does this program stick around after the election? If the administration changes, what's going to happen to this program?

THOMAS: It's a great question. And we're working really hard to make sure that this program lasts for years to come. And we're building those decisions into the implementation and the design of the program. So, you know, one of the things that always comes to mind for me is, it's hard to say no to successful programs like this. And we want to make sure that we are really reaching every community across the country and having an impact in each one of those communities. And I think the impact of this program will become immediately clear to folks when they see young people put to work gaining the skills that they need to be members of the workforce of the future, and making a really clear, tangible climate impact in communities across the country. And, you know, from our perspective, we're doing everything we can to sprint at that goal. The President has set big bold goals before, he will continue to set big bold goals when it comes to his climate agenda. And the American Climate Corps is no different.

O'NEILL: Maggie Thomas is the Special Assistant to the President for Climate in the White House. Thanks for joining us, Maggie.

THOMAS: Thanks so much for having me. It was a great conversation, and I hope everybody goes out and applies to join the American Climate Corps.



The American Climate Corps website

Grist “The American Climate Corps is Now Hiring”

The White House “FACT SHEET: President Biden Marks Earth Day 2024 with Historic Climate Action”

Watch several speeches commemorating Earth Day including President Biden


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