Bob Dylan famously sang that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” We could update Dylan’s adage to say that in 2017, you don’t need a climatologist to see we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis. By way of review: 2016 was the hottest year on record. Before that, the hottest year was 2015. Before that, it was 2014. In fact, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. The warming is having dramatic consequences. At the poles, sea ice coverage is at a record low. The world’s coral reefs are experiencing a dramatic die-off. In my home state of New Mexico, we are experiencing record high temperatures, deadly dust storms, and wildfire evacuations.
As serious as these environmental challenges are, they understandably take a back seat to more immediate economic concerns. Unemployment is still a major concern in many parts of our country. Middle class incomes have stagnated even as college tuition has skyrocketed. Families are increasingly living paycheck-to-paycheck.
In an age of drones and self-driving cars, the situation is only going to get worse. According to one study, 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk from automation in the next 20 years. No less a technophile than Bill Gates has suggested a “robot tax” to slow automation, fund worker retraining efforts, and expand public employment.
Faced with these enormous economic and environmental challenges, we need to think big. Luckily, there is an elegant solution to both problems, with precedent in U.S. history. The solution is to create a Climate Conservation Corps to put Americans to work fighting climate change.
In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, the Great Depression was at its nadir. Less often remembered is that the nation was experiencing an ecological crisis. Forest coverage was at all time lows. Overplanting and overgrazing were contributing to dramatic soil erosion, foreshadowing the Dust Bowl. President Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in response to these exigencies. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed more than 3 million young men, who planted nearly 3 billion trees, developed 800 new state parks, and constructed 13,000 miles of hiking trails. Many historians rank the CCC as the most popular of all the New Deal programs. Nonetheless, Congress terminated it upon the onset of World War II.
Since the Great Recession, a number of prominent commentators have argued for bringing it back. Progressive members of Congress have also shown an interest in the idea. Unsurprisingly, commentators have argued that a reconstituted CCC should focus on the battle against climate change.
The obvious place for such a program to begin would be with energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has the potential to save consumers a tremendous amount of money while greatly reducing emissions. In 2009, the McKinsey consulting firm estimated that an aggressive approach to energy efficiency could save U.S. consumers nearly $600 billion while preventing 1.1 billion tons of CO2 (the annual emissions of 320 coal-fired power plants). Investing in energy efficiency makes particular sense because it is rapidly growing sector of the economy that is limited by employers’ difficulty finding qualified employees. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S economy could support an additional 3 million construction jobs in this sector, but over 80 percent of employers reported difficulty finding qualified employees. A Climate Conservation Corps could remove a key impediment to this sector’s growth by training and deploying a new generation of workers.
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State and local governments are leading the way. Since 2013, the California Conservation Corps has employed young adults and recently returned veterans to perform energy audits and simple retrofits at schools, low-income homes, and national forest facilities. Minnesota had put AmeriCorps participants to work in residences, installing smart thermostats and power strips, CFL light bulbs, door weather stripping, and other energy-saving technologies. A number of cities and states have employed corps members to perform similar tasks, or to educate members of the public about energy efficiency. The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program provides another model. Since 1976, the DOE has worked with state and local governments to perform audits and retrofits in low-income homes, saving homeowners $340 million in a typical year while supporting 8,500 jobs. A Climate Conservation Corps could build upon this work on a much larger scale.
Such a program would more than pay for itself in energy savings. It would also stimulate the economy as a whole. A 2009 study found a ten-fold increase in economic activity for every dollar invested in energy efficiency in New England. This stimulus effect was a result of lower energy costs, which lead to increased consumer spending and a reduction in the cost of doing business.
The scope of the energy efficiency opportunity is such that there would be little need to focus on anything else in the near term. But the new CCC should be designed with sufficient flexibility to take on other projects that contribute meaningfully to the fight against climate change, have low capital costs, and are not being undertaken by the private sector with sufficient alacrity. Projects like solar panel manufacturing and installation, reforestation, and wetland restoration might fit the bill.
A public works program is not the only way to reduce emissions while creating jobs: traditional pollution control programs like the Clean Power Plan would also create hundreds of thousands of jobs. If more familiar mechanisms are capable of producing similar economic and environmental benefits, one might question the need for a Climate Conservation Corps. That would be misguided. Behavioral economists have shown that the framing of policy options matters greatly. If a policy is presented in a way that emphasizes its benefits, people are more likely to favor it than if the same policy is presented in a way that emphasizes its cost.
Although programs like the Clean Power Plan would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, they are not framed as job-creating measures, and are not understood by the public as such. In fact, many people incorrectly assume that regulations lead to reduced employment. The Climate Conservation Corps avoids this pitfall by emphasizing both environmental and employment benefits.
We should continue to advocate for measures like the Clean Power Plan. But in the face of an existential crisis, we need to try everything we can think of. We could do a lot worse than to emulate the most popular program of the New Deal.