Q&A: Thousands of American Climate Corps Jobs Are Now Open. What Will the New Program Look Like?

Short answer: A lot like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal’s most popular programs, which put millions to work—but much more diverse.

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on Monday, Earth Day, at Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Va. Credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on Monday, Earth Day, at Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Va. Credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

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From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by producer Aynsley O’Neill with Maggie Thomas, the special assistant to the president for climate in the White House. 

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

“It’s patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Like them, it brings out the best in young people to do what’s best for America,” Biden said at the event. “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 to become the first members of the American Climate Corps.”

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. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

AYNSLEY O’NEILL: 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?

MAGGIE THOMAS: 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, 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 in the same. Through a public works program, the CCC ultimately became one of the New Deal’s most popular programs. 

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Today we have new crises, and we have a whole new diverse generation of young people who can be put to work. We thought it’s a really good idea; let’s see if we can do it again. 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. 

Right now you can go on to climatecorps.gov and apply; we have about 2,000 positions listed with lots and lots more on the way. It’s really exciting.

O’NEILL: Looking at the website, there are some programs that sound pretty familiar—AmeriCorps, for one. What kind of jobs are going to be open through that?

THOMAS: 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 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. There have now been 13 states that have come forward and launched state-based Climate Corps programs that are at varying stages of implementation. 

Maggie Thomas, special assistant to the president on climate
Maggie Thomas, special assistant to the president on climate

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. 

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 Segal Education Award, which means that if you complete your term of service, you can get a little over $7,000 that can be used for student debt or for future education. So there are certainly a lot of benefits that come from AmericaCorps-specific positions. 

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. 

We want to make sure that we’re equipping this next generation with the tools to succeed in the workforce of the future. 

O’NEILL: Another program I’m seeing is the Forest Corps. What’s that one about?

THOMAS: Forest Corps is a new partnership that we announced last fall between AmeriCorps and the U.S. Forest Service. One of the really, really tragic impacts 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. 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. 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. 

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 homes. We want to make sure to be protecting those homes. 

They’ll be 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 Service says, “We’ve got priority areas,” that we’re putting young people to work in those priority areas to get the job done.

O’NEILL: There are also jobs related to FEMA—the FEMA Corps. What will that look like?

THOMAS: 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. 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 as prepared as possible? 

Once disaster does strike, which hopefully it doesn’t, are we 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.

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

THOMAS: We want to make sure that the American Climate Corps looks like America, first and foremost. 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. 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. 

One of the ways that we do that is we just make a commitment. We know that the American Climate Corps needs to serve all 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. 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: 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 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.

O’NEILL: How permanent are these positions going to be?

THOMAS: All the positions in the American Climate Corps are term limited, which means they are likely going to be a summer-term position, perhaps up to a year. Some of the positions may get extended, and that’s sort of up to the American Climate Corps member and their project host, of course. These are not permanent jobs, but they are giving young people an opportunity to be put on a pathway to permanent jobs.

O’NEILL: 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 is a new partnership with the North American Building Trades Unions nonprofit partner called Trades Futures. 

NABTU, 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? 

This new partnership announcement that the president made on Monday is going to make the NABTU pre-apprenticeship 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. 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 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. The goal is to make joining the American Climate Corps as attractive as possible.

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O’NEILL: It sounds really promising. In an election year, 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: We’re working really hard to make sure that this program lasts for years to come; we’re building those decisions into the implementation and the design of the program. 

One of the things that always comes to mind for me is, it’s hard to say no to successful programs like this. 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. I think the impact of this program will become immediately clear to folks when they see young people put to work or 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. 

We’re doing everything we can to sprint at that goal. The president has set big, bold goals before, and he will continue to set big, bold goals when it comes to his climate agenda. The American Climate Corps is no different.

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