Climate Jobs Are Ramping Up, But a ‘Just Transition’ Is Necessary to Ensure Equity, Experts Say

As the U.S. floods the employment market with climate jobs, some are concerned about fossil fuel-dependent communities getting left in the dust.

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California has its own Conservation Corps. In 2021, firefighters from the Corps loaded potential fuel sources for fires, including dead branches and logs, into a wood chipper to prevent more severe fires. Credit: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

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The new American Climate Corps is hiring: A disaster recovery leader to help communities rebuild after major storms in New Orleans. A Ridgerunner in southern New England to hike the Appalachian Trail and advise visitors to keep pathways clean. A wildland firefighter to smother flames in California. 

These are just a few of the job listings offered by the ACC, an initiative officially launched by the Biden administration in April that will eventually employ more than 20,000 young people in careers related to tackling the climate crisis. 

The effort is part of a broader push at the federal and state levels to grow the “green” workforce across the U.S. to slash the country’s carbon emissions and transition to a grid powered mostly by clean energy. However, amid this transition, many of the communities that depend on fossil fuel-intensive industries like oil and gas for jobs and their local economy are at risk of being left behind. 

For today’s newsletter, I am exploring how the government is building up the climate workforce—and why experts say that a “just transition” needs to be top of mind. 

What is the American Climate Corps? Standing in front of the verdant trees at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia on Earth Day, President Biden unveiled the application portal for the American Climate Corps, which has been in the works since his first week in office.

The program is modeled after former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Civilian Conservation Corps,” which recruited men to work on the ground to improve public lands in the U.S. after the Great Depression. Partnering with organizations like the U.S. Forest Service and AmeriCorps, the ACC offers jobs that vary widely in terms of location, day-to-day activities and salary—some only pay around $11 per hour, while others fall in the $20 range. Unlike the Civilian Conservation Corps, roles are open to all genders, and the program must adhere to the administration’s Justice40 initiative, meaning that 40 percent of the benefits are required to go to marginalized communities. 

“We want to make sure that the American Climate Corps looks like America, first and foremost,” Maggie Thomas, special assistant to the president on climate, told Living on Earth. “We’ve got a new diverse generation of young people who want to be put to work in careers in climate, clean energy and climate resilience.”

More than 10 states including Vermont, New Mexico and Illinois have recently launched their own versions of the program, adding to the stream of climate work flooding the job market. 

The Green Skills Gap: In the past few years, the U.S. has made historic investments in clean energy, including $62 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

However, research shows that the country’s workforce might not yet have the technical skills to meet the increasing demand for clean energy. A recent report released by LinkedIn found that job postings for “green jobs” such as solar installer or wind turbine technician are growing nearly twice as fast as the number of individuals with the skills to fit them. Some experts are concerned that this “green skills gap” could slow the clean energy transition and prevent workers from accessing jobs, reports the Wall Street Journal

Partnering with the North America’s Building Trades Union’s TradesFutures program, the American Climate Corps at least partially addresses this by providing every member access to a free, pre-apprenticeship trades readiness program to help individuals build practical and marketable skills when their position ends, according to the White House. 

At a broad scale, there have been doubts over whether clean energy jobs will have adequate pay and benefits compared to those lost from the fossil fuel industry. However, in September, the Treasury Department and the IRS released a proposed rule that would require companies to meet certain labor standards in order to qualify for clean energy tax credits, which marked a “big step forward,” Kevin Reilly, assistant director for policy at the Laborers’ International Union of North America, told my colleague Dan Gearino

Those Left Behind: The clean energy transition inherently means that the U.S. is shifting away from something else: fossil fuels. While this will deeply reduce carbon emissions, it can also have sprawling economic consequences for communities that have long relied on emissions-heavy industries. 

For example, tens of thousands of coal workers have lost their jobs in Appalachia throughout Kentucky and West Virginia. This can have ripple effects for an entire community: In California, oil companies in Kern County have made fewer investments in schools and recreation centers as the state shifts away from fossil fuels, reports Grist

However, former oil and gas or mining hotspots could one day become hubs for climate action with the right policies and investments, experts say. For example, Kern county is working with an oil company to pivot drilling operations to a massive direct-carbon capture operation

Many fossil fuel workers have skills that transfer directly to those required by green jobs, according to a study published in September. But one of the main barriers is location: The researchers found that current sites of wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power plants had little overlap with where fossil fuel workers are living. 

To remedy this, governments are bringing green jobs to where workers are already living; in March, the Biden administration announced up to $475 million in funding for five projects in Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to expand clean energy deployment on current and former mine land.

In other cases, governments are trying to develop green skills in the workforce from the ground up. On Thursday, Massachusetts governor Maura Healey announced a $10 million “Climate Careers Fund” that will offer loans to help participants access training programs for climate and clean energy jobs. 

It won’t be easy to shift away from the fossil fuel landscape that has long-dominated the U.S. energy market, both culturally and economically. But research shows that climate change itself poses incomprehensible threats to the global economy and life on the planet as we know it, and that clean jobs are key to preventing this. 

More Top Climate News

On Monday, The New York Times published a sprawling analysis on how the home insurance market is poised to collapse as climate shocks throttle communities. Much of the focus on the climate-fueled insurance crisis has been on Florida, where skyrocketing insurance rates have left communities without financial support during hurricanes and flooding events, which my colleague Amy Green covered in March

But the Times’ analysis showed a dozen other states seeing insurance companies raising rates or fleeing their areas as disasters and extreme weather events unfold. That’s because insurers are struggling to shoulder the financial costs of damage from these events while consumers are forced to pay astronomically high premiums—or face the risk of having no insurance at all. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration on Thursday announced a proposal to end new coal leasing in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the largest coal producing region in the country. In an environmental impact statement motivating the decision, the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management cited a range of climate and health concerns. Existing leases are expected to continue through 2041 in Wyoming and 2060 in Montana, reports the Associated Press

In Italy, U.S. State Department officials gathered at a climate summit at the Vatican this week to discuss climate action. Pope Francis, who has been a strong advocate for climate progress, stated that the destruction of the environment is “an offense against God” and urged swift action to reduce emissions around the world.

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