A Corps to Match a Crisis

“Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” These words by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm were never more apt than today. And the rent just went up.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), living on Planet Earth is a perilous privilege indeed. After eight years of research by hundreds of scientists around the globe, the IPCC’s new 3,949-page report finds that human greenhouse gas emissions are “unequivocally” changing our climate in “dangerous”, “unprecedented” and “irreversible” ways. Not since the dawn of human life some 300,000 years ago, the scientists find, has Earth experienced the degree of global heating we see today.

With the rising temperatures come a host of climatic extremes, from searing heatwaves and droughts to devastating storms and sea level rise. Air pollution from fossil fuels is killing over 8 million people a year prematurely — one in five deaths worldwide — while floodwaters now reach ten times as many people as previously known.

Of course, you probably don’t need thousands more pages of scientific research to tell you the climate is in crisis. Our own senses and daily news feeds have been saying as much for years. This summer alone, large swaths of the western United States are battling historic heatwaves and wildfires, as predicted by climate science, costing hundreds of lives and untold property damage. Closer to home, southern New Hampshire set rainfall records in July as intense storms (also a predictable result of global warming) flooded homes and washed out roads and farms. Down south, another record-setting hurricane season is already underway.

What do these rising “rents” have to do with service? Today’s climate crisis demands an all-hands-on-deck response, not just from governments but from the people at large. While climate mitigation through massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is the first order of business, the time is long since passed when “do no harm” will suffice on its own. Instead, the responsibility falls on all of us to actively repair the damage done by helping our nation and world adapt to a destabilized climate and become resilient in the face of future heating.

That’s why America needs a national mobilization the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. It begins with building an army of a different kind to the one my granddad joined some eighty years ago, when he and fellow members of the “Greatest Generation” faced down the existential threat of fascism on foreign shores. Today’s army will consist of millions of young Americans coming together in national service to help their own communities overcome the even greater threat posed by climate change, while acquiring the skills and means to thrive as adults in a 21st century economy.

Enter the Civilian Climate Corps. Modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which formed an essential part of FDR’s New Deal, the Civilian Climate Corps would deliver badly needed public goods to withstand the climate crisis and help our nation transition to long-term sustainability. Corps members between the ages of 17 and 24 would embed in local communities to help maintain our ailing public lands, prevent wildfires, restore wetlands, protect biodiversity, green our cities, provide disaster response, and engage in proven efforts to reduce carbon emissions and enable the clean energy transition. As they help fortify communities against climate damage during their service year, these and other AmeriCorps volunteers would earn a livable wage and the opportunity to attend college (or retire their college loans) before entering the new, sustainable economy.

Those who doubt the impact a Civilian Climate Corps would have should look no further than its CCC predecessor. During the height of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps put some 3 million young men to workbuilding over 100,000 miles of roads and trails, 318,000 dams, and tens of thousands of bridges nationwide. They planted billions of trees to preserve the nation’s topsoil, strung telephone lines across mountain passes to connect the nation, and built or improved over 800 campgrounds and state parks to provide future generations a means of enjoying the outdoors. They even fought wildfires and assisted in hurricane relief. Their legacy is with us to this day.

Unlike the former CCC’s unjust practice of excluding women and many people of color, today’s Civilian Climate Corps would ensure equal opportunity for all — especially marginalized groups — as part of an enlarged AmeriCorps movement (in which I was honored to serve 20 years ago). Rather than focus on small towns and public lands alone, a modern CCC would also respond to the myriad climate needs facing frontline urban communities, from air pollution and extreme heat to lack of green space and healthy homes. In the process, it would unite increasingly diverse generations of Americans across social, geographic, and political divides for the greater good.

Of course, a Civilian Climate Corps cannot solve the climate crisis on its own. Nor is it fair to ask our young people to take on an existential threat passed down to them by those who came before. Instead, we should heed the urgent pleas of our youth that all Americans, especially those in power, stand up and serve however we are able, by helping neighbors harmed by climate change while cutting our greenhouse gas emissions and making sure our businesses, nonprofits, and governments do the same. For starters, we should demand that Congress serve the greater good by passing an aggressive climate-centered reconciliation package supported by President Biden that includes historic investments in the new clean energy economy as well as a Civilian Climate Corps.

Throughout our history as a nation, Americans have repeatedly risen to the challenge when faced with looming threats to our way of life, from Valley Forge to Gettysburg to Pearl Harbor. Will we rise up and serve again this time to protect our common home? There isn’t a moment to lose.

Husband, Father, Citizen / Co-Owner & Director at ReVision Energy / Chair of Open Democracy. SDG