Last month, the campaign for a Youth Climate Corps took a big leap forward when the Biden administration launched the American Climate Corps — a new jobs program that will see thousands of young people get training and employment in climate-related work.
As the White House declared, “The American Climate Corps will put a new generation of Americans to work conserving our lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, advancing environmental justice, deploying clean energy, implementing energy-efficient technologies, and tackling climate change. American Climate Corps members will gain the skills necessary to access good-paying jobs that are aligned with high-quality employment opportunities after they complete their paid training or service program.”
One of Joe Biden’s great strengths when it comes to climate communications is that he always makes climate action, first and foremost, about jobs — the exciting jobs of the future and a stated commitment not to leave workers behind. It makes for a stark contrast with the technocratic approach to climate policy that prevails in Canada.
But now especially, as the U.S. president enters what is surely to be a way-too-close-for-comfort election period, he’s particularly keen to shore up support among younger voters. Notwithstanding his encouragement of renewable energy projects, Biden has managed to alienate a great many young climate-anxious voters with his support for new fossil fuel extraction projects, most notably the Willow oil project in Alaska. His launching of the American Climate Corps should be seen as a renewed attempt to make nice with this voting bloc upon whom his re-election may well hinge.
Speaking of which: Memo to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau! The polls have you trailing badly among Gen Z and Millennial voters. This is the same cohort that swept Trudeau to power in 2015 and now the Conservatives are in the lead among this demographic — for the first time in generations. Maybe it’s time to offer something exciting and hopeful to these folks. Sir, may I present the Youth Climate Corps (YCC).
I’ve yet to see Canadian opinion polling on a YCC, but the idea of a climate corps is incredibly popular in the U.S. Two years ago, Data for Progress found 77 per cent of Americans supported funding for a new federal Civilian Climate Corps. (Heck, even 65 per cent of Republicans support it!)
The American Climate Corps represents a big and hard-fought win for the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led national climate action organization that exploded into public attention in 2018 when they and newly elected U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez occupied Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding the Democrats up their climate game and embrace the Green New Deal. The Sunrise Movement, with its allies in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has made the Climate Corps a core demand in the last year. This is a victory for them that Biden hopes will spur a victory for him.
Sunrise and its founding executive director Varshini Prakash have been relentlessly campaigning for a youth climate jobs program it was calling a Civilian Climate Corps (now redubbed the American Climate Corps by the White House) for years. They managed to get the idea included in Biden’s presidential platform in 2020, and then secured a major financial commitment for the corps in Biden’s original Build Back Better infrastructure package (the initial plan included $30 billion for the corps), only to have it stripped away during the torturous negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin that ultimately produced the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA); the IRA included huge tax credits for climate-related infrastructure, but Biden’s initial proposed spending on the climate corps was jettisoned.
But Sunrise didn’t give up. They organized in communities across the country. They sought allies. They led some very long marches, including a 400-mile march from New Orleans to Houston, and another 266-mile march from Paradise, Calif. (a community that had been largely burned to the ground by forest fires) to San Francisco. A handful of young people held a heart-wrenching hunger strike in Washington, D.C.
It's time for Canada to follow the lead of the United States and form a youth climate corps. @SethDKlein writes for @NatObserver @sunrisemvmt #ClimateCorps
All of which culminated in Biden’s announcement last month, which he instituted by presidential executive order, outside the congressional deal.
But Sunrise doesn’t intend to stop there. As Prakash wrote to Sunrise supporters the day of the American Climate Corps announcement, “This win is proof that when we get organized, young people can win real things for our generation. More importantly, it’s proof that when we come together, we can force people in power to listen to us. If we can win a Climate Corps — an idea that people once thought was too far-fetched — we can win a Green New Deal.”
To be clear, the American Climate Corps is a limited win. It is far from the vision Sunrise and others have proposed. Initially, it will provide job placements for only 20,000 young people a year — not many in a country as large as the U.S. And most of the job placements will be fairly short-term — these gigs are a far cry from Red Seal apprenticeship training. Without a substantial budgetary allotment from Congress, this might best be understood as a pre-election down payment.
Nevertheless, if the political stars align, this Climate Corps Phase 1 could leverage more — both substantially more positions and longer-term ones that truly set hundreds of thousands of young people onto a career and life path engaging in this task of our lives. Writing in Forbes, climate and energy columnist Silvio Marcacci notes Biden’s American Climate Corps “could become the connective tissue enabling the IRA to create a just transition and build resilient communities.”
If the Americans can win a climate corps, let’s win one here!
As I have previously written, an audacious YCC, were we to win one in this country, would be an invitation to Canada’s youth to mobilize to confront today’s gravest threat: the climate emergency. It could be a new flagship public program that, funded at a sufficient scale, would send an electrifying signal. It would indicate our governments are indeed entering genuine emergency mode and would communicate to young people that they are being called to join in a grand societal transformation.
The Climate Emergency Unit (with which I work) is actively campaigning for a YCC and building a coalition that can press the federal government to adopt a climate corps in Canada. Rather than asking young people to sign yet another petition, the current focus of the campaign is a somewhat cheeky initiative. People 35 years and under are submitting a mock cover letter to federal leaders seeking as-yet non-existent Youth Climate Corps positions. The campaign plans to hand deliver these job applications to Federal Minister for Youth Marci Ien in Toronto at the end of November — physical proof that thousands of young people are ready to serve and are awaiting the jobs that will allow them to meet this generation's challenge.
If you are 35 or younger and want to submit one of these mock letters, you can do so here.
The campaign is gaining momentum, but it will need more allies if it is to successfully secure a YCC at scale. And it will likely require young climate activists in Canada to model some of the more creative and brash tactics of the Sunrise campaign (as we witnessed climate justice student activists do on the divestment front last year at the University of Toronto and McMaster University).
Confront the bad guys
Something else is happening in the U.S. that we have yet to see in Canada and, again, Canadian political leaders should take note. Increasingly, we are seeing American politicians naming and confronting fossil fuel corporations.
In July, it was Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee declaring on ABC’s This Week, “We need to stop using fossil fuels. That is the only solution to this massive assault on humanity.” Then at the United Nations last month, it was California Gov. Gavin Newsom stating, “This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis. This climate crisis persists. It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out. For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools. They’ve been buying off politicians… Their deceit and denial, going back decades, has created the conditions that persist here today.” This on the heels of California announcing it is suing five major fossil fuel corporations for climate damages and public deception.
Young people likely find this kind of forthright talk refreshing as well.
But in Canada, while most of our elected leaders are ready to talk about the threat of climate change in general terms, those in government remain reticent to name its primary cause — the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed, our leaders seem to go out of their way not to invite battle with these climate-fuelling corporations. How very nice and Canadian, eh?
Instead, if young people heard more political leaders picking a clear side — their side — in the face of this civilizational threat, ready to bring on the fight against those corporate interests that would sacrifice their future, and willing to offer the country’s youth a grand invitation to lead the transition off fossil fuels, a good many more of those young people would have their backs.