President Biden’s American Climate Corps (ACC) Program launched in September of this year. The idea was originally proposed to Congress in 2021 by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How was this win secured? Well, it took years of organizing by groups like the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental justice organization. In fact, in the summer of 2021, 500 of its members were arrested while protesting on White House grounds in an effort to get such a Corps included in Build Back Better, which was then still in the works. Sunrise also influenced New York Senator Chuck Schumer to vouch for Corps funding while ironing out Build Back Better. Overall, this was a push for a frameshift in viewing climate action not as a chore we should be dragging our feet to do, but instead as an exciting opportunity for jobs and community improvement, as activist and author Naomi Klein is famous for touting.
Originally pitched as the Civilian Climate Corps, the program would work as a 21st-century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Program. Since its first proposal, the name has changed, but its core ideas remain the same: train 20,000 people to secure employment in green jobs (e.g., solar panel installation, wetland restoration, etc.). The program involves union partnerships and even promises some paths into civil servant careers. Most will not ask for a college degree. The ACC is run by AmeriCorps, the Department of Labor, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy. Additionally, the federal government is partnering with the 10 states that already have their own ACC equivalent, and five other states plan on creating their own.
Some say this is the beginning of a road to the Green New Deal. This is indeed an investment in what has been referred to as the green or clean energy economy, and there are many parallels between the ACC and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal-era CCC. Organizations like Earth Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been vocal in praising the ACC. There is special enthusiasm in places such as Colorado, where the ACC harkens back to a time when the New Deal profoundly shaped recreation. There are some key positive differences between the ACC and CCC, too. For starters, the CCC excluded women and was rife with racism, while the ACC aims to elevate traditionally disenfranchised communities by applying the pre-existing Justice40 Initiative. However, there are lingering concerns about resource distribution, the impacts of executive action on the program, and interagency collaboration.
Partnership for the Civilian Climate Corps
We (Nora Lowe ’26 and Mia Sanchez ’26) reached out to Christian Collins from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) to learn more. Collins is a policy analyst specializing in education, labor, and worker justice. He previously did research for the Service Employees International Union and the Urban Institute. His group is part of the Partnership for the Civilian Climate Corps (PCCC). The PCCC was founded in January and will be holding the White House and aforementioned partnering agencies accountable for meeting the program goals. We sat down with him on Dec. 7, 2023 via Zoom for an open conversation on the past, present, and future of the ACC.
Interview (Edited for Length and Clarity)
Mia Sanchez: What do you do with your organization, and how do you feel that relates to the American Climate Corps?
Christian Collins: A bit of background about me: With CLASP, I’m a policy analyst for the education, labor, and worker justice team. It’s a team that covers a very wide range of policies in our portfolio. I started initially on the labor and worker justice side, because right before this job, I was a researcher for a labor union, but since then, I’ve shifted to most of my involvement being on the education side and postsecondary education research, even though I still touch back on the labor and worker justice aspect in specific areas, such as the childcare workforce. Then, I had some involvement on an internal environmental justice working group in New York, with representation from pretty much every policy team; people who are interested in doing side projects on environmental justice and helping build our organizational portfolio on it.
Nora Lowe: Would you say that your involvement in that working group has been formative for you in your role at the organization?
CC: Yeah, I would say so. It was actually one of the first things I got involved with when I started at CLASP. Pretty soon after I was hired, the environmental justice working group had their first project proposal: a series of blog releases tailored around that year’s Earth Day to not just highlight our overall environmental justice policies, but also specific pieces to touch on how environmental justice interacts with all of our individual policy areas across CLASP. It builds those connections as to why environmental justice isn’t just important as its own policy area, but also how it’s connected to everything else that we work on.
NL: In your opinion, why is it important to have a program like the ACC, and who exactly do you think is going to benefit most from it?
CC: As far as who benefits most from the Climate Corps, the Corps itself provides a very broad benefit to society as a whole because of the work that it’ll be doing as far as improving the national infrastructure to better prepare us for future climate change. But also, it’s targeted towards the communities who have been devastated the most — not just communities that are more at risk for direct climate-related weather events, but also communities that have been harmed the most in the policies that have put us where we are now as a country as far as environmental impact, where pollution is largely concentrated in areas that are disproportionately minority populations. A lot of the direct workforce impacts of climate change are towards jobs predominantly occupied by underrepresented groups. Going into future efforts to update the national infrastructure and the economy, a lot of the aspects missing from the national conversation are not just how those changes will impact communities that already have greater access to financial and natural resources, but also communities that don’t. How do we make sure those communities are included and represented in those conversations? So, I feel that the Climate Corps is a significant step in how we can address all those aspects.
MS: In your work as an analyst, do you see connections between the mission of your organization and the mission of the ACC?
CC: Yes! My team’s director was part of an op-ed that was released to announce the launch of the Climate Corps. In that op-ed, it touches on the reasons why our organization was involved in the efforts to set up the Climate Corps. Our main mission is anti-poverty efforts, so environmental justice is very strongly tied to anti-poverty efforts, both now and especially in the future.
NL: One pitfall of AmeriCorps is that it has turned into kind of a ‘cool’ volunteer opportunity for privileged college grads. When you’re talking about underserved populations, how can the ACC avoid that same kind of pitfall?
CC: The main way that we’ve discussed it as an organization is going into not just
the amount of jobs that could potentially be provided through the Climate Corps, but also the quality of the jobs themselves. It’s tied to the overall recent discussions on national labor policy and the state of the economy, where right now, unemployment is super low, one of the lowest rates it has ever been, but the question is more, if people are at least employed, are they being employed in good jobs? Are they being employed in sustainable jobs that pay not just a living wage, but a thriving wage? That have benefits to actually improve their quality of life outside of keeping them off the unemployment line? The exact same discussions have been a big part of the Climate Corps. It’s not just providing green jobs, but also making sure that they’re sustainable careers with long-lasting permanent economic benefits to uplift communities that have historically been underserved by such efforts.
MS: With the group that the ACC is trying to reach for employment, how will undocumented people, non-English speakers, and differently-abled people be able to participate in the program?
CS: Those populations have been a significant part of our conversations with the Climate Corps. The traditional trend has been to immediately think along racial lines and along gender lines, but that makes it still an incomplete conversation. So, from our end, similar to our environmental justice working group, we have a disability justice working group. We have a full immigration policy team, and some of their members have been highly involved in the Climate Corps conversations. One of the senior policy analysts on the team, for the blog series I mentioned earlier, was specifically talking about the potential impact of climate change on the migrant workforce, and specifically addressing concerns about how climate-related changes have the potential to not just harm the communities that migrant workers reside in, but also the migrant workers themselves because they’re more commonly siloed into outdoor infrastructure jobs. They don’t really have the current workplace protections to handle cases of increased heat, like what we were seeing last summer in Texas, where they had some significant heat waves and migrant workers were dying working in agricultural, construction, or manual labor jobs. So, raising those conversations as well is a very important part of the work that we’ve already done and will continue to do going forward.
NL: We’ve been talking about the impacts the ACC will have. We’ve also, in our policy class (ENST 250: US Environmental Policy with Professor Ashwin Ravikumar), been learning about how movements secure wins like this. Do you think that bottom-up organizing or top-down organizing played a bigger role in getting this victory? I know AOC called it an ‘inside-outside’ organizing win, so what are your thoughts on that or other types of tactics that went into making this a reality?
CC: We’re involved in a large number of different policy-related coalitions, most of which have significant numbers of advocacy organizations that may actually partake in on-the-ground organizing. Our role in that is mainly providing research, background knowledge, and subject matter expertise to aid them in organizing efforts for backing up and reinforcing them.
As a personal belief, I feel that especially for the Climate Corps, part of the reason it finally translated into a big policy win was because of the more bottom-up organizing. This idea is not really new to federal policy. It has roots in New Deal efforts from Roosevelt in the background of World War II. But it got over the finish line this time because of all the on-the-ground advocacy and concern over the impact of climate change. It’s not just certain prominent political figures or leaders making statements and proposing legislation over it, but rather constituency groups constantly on the phone with policymakers that represent them in governmental bodies, and also just doing your own messaging, getting the word out — especially in social media, in today’s day and age — to really drive home the point that this is a serious concern for millions of people across the country. The time for debate has long passed, and the time for tangible action is now, so I feel that that was a very big help.
NL: We’d love to hear about your group’s role in providing the research, the backing, and the reinforcement for those advocacy groups.
CC: It’s most of our coalitions where we offer that kind of support. Regarding environmental justice, I just mentioned how it has already been a concern for millions of people on the ground, but it also helps in advocacy in talking to policymakers, not just saying ‘climate change is a concern to me as an individual,’ or ‘it’s a concern to my community and where I reside,’ but also being very specific on how climate change impacts myself and my community.
A good example is chemical alley in Louisiana, where there’s a high concentration of factories that produce dangerous and harmful chemicals, and for decades, there have been significant health impacts on the local population; So, being able to provide information saying, ‘this is the impact of those chemicals over certain generations, here are the details in federal policy that allowed this to happen and that have actually made it profitable for companies to continue these practices, and here are policy levers that are available, that wouldn’t just help in immediate restorative justice efforts, but would actually have long-lasting impacts as far as positive economic and healthcare support for those communities.’ That kind of support is what we go for.
NL: It’s funny you connect it to Louisiana, because we were doing case studies on that in our class!
MS: Yeah, that ties really closely into what we've been working on. Do you see continuity or change between the CCC and the ACC?
CC: Those New Deal programs are direct inspiration. That’s why all these proposals were packaged under the Green New Deal, because it was a direct reference. The goal was to have the same impact as the New Deal did for the ‘40s and ‘50s.
But it’s also different because even though the New Deal was a significant policy step to support lower-middle-class Americans at the time, it was also incredibly flawed. There were purposeful efforts within that legislation to exclude certain minority groups. Where the ACC and CCC are different is in seeking to right those wrongs. We’re really not just not excluding those groups, but also prioritizing and uplifting those groups. That’s where I feel efforts are different from the original Corps — having that purposeful effort to uplift and positively impact those communities that need the support most.
NL: Taking a bird’s eye view, what do you think the pros and cons of having so many agencies in on this are?
CC: I feel that the amount of agencies involved is a recognition of how environmental policy impacts just about every other policy area in politics. But also again, there’s an extreme potential of a case of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen,’ especially in cases of needed rapid response. It may be an issue if something in need of a more urgent response has to go through all those channels.
Going into the pros, I feel that federal agency support as well as state involvement is critical as far as gaining knowledge of where to target resources from the effort because all the federal agencies are huge and have a large scope, but they also don’t have the more direct on-the-ground knowledge that state agencies may have. In Louisiana, for example, it’s not just the entire state needing these resources allocated to them. They need to be specifically targeted at projects within parishes or communities to have the most effective impact as far as overall project goals, so I feel that it definitely helps to have that level of involvement. Even between the federal agencies themselves, when different agencies have different knowledge of how a proposal may impact a certain community or a certain project, being able to share that information beforehand would lead to the best outcome.
NL: Thinking about the timeline of this program, I know originally when it was baked into Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, it was aiming to employ 300,000 people, while this version of the program is much more pared down. Do you think that it’s bound to grow over time and maybe hit those original targets, or do you think it’s going to be a mini version of that original vision?
CC: I think that the goal is to grow it over time. I feel that the two beliefs — (1) thinking climate change is necessary enough to embark on a project like this, and (2) thinking it only needs to be this size and never grow — are incompatible. The downsides were part of the original compromise to just get this thing on the ground and out the door. I think the intention is to grow it over time, and then even if that’s not the intention, it kind of has to because of how climate change has been progressing over the past couple decades, and how it’s projected to continue. They probably won’t have a choice.
MS: Since we know that this program was brought into being by an executive action, do you see that as a source of fragility, that potentially another executive action could take it down? Or, in another light, do you think that could actually be a good thing long-term for the program?
CC: Executive action was definitely the best choice as far as getting it off the ground. Anything legislative, especially with the current makeup of both chambers, as far as environmental justice, is probably dead on arrival. It definitely has more risk because executive action could easily be overturned by a future president enacting another executive order to strike it down. It provides greater legal risk as far as judiciary challenges to those efforts. The long-term goal would be to codify these efforts into federal law to provide more shielding from efforts to roll it back. As far as the initial start through executive action, I feel that the administration didn’t really have a choice on that matter if they wanted to get it done before 2024.
NL: We read an article in class about Biden’s “pool party politics,” or the need for him to engage in that. It argues that Biden has accomplished a lot, but people don’t know about it, and maybe if we could publicize some more celebratory sides to the progress we are making on combating climate change, then that would garner him more support. Do you think this is a front on which that sort of political strategy can be enacted? In short, do you think this is something for people to get really excited about and something that could help Biden maybe win the election?
CC: I would argue that it may be too soon for those kinds of promotional effects, mainly because a lot of voters aren’t going to care until they’re in those jobs, they’re getting those paychecks, and they’re seeing the impact on their community. So, it’s hard to message future successes, like, ‘hey, we implemented this thing that we haven’t really done anything about yet, but it will help you, although i’'s also at risk of being struck down if November next year doesn’t go our way.’ It’s really hard to build a messaging strategy around that. The potential is there, but until tangible events start happening to build that messaging off of, they could try, but it won’t be as effective as it could be.