The Promise, and Potential Pitfalls, of a Civilian Climate Corps.

AuthorBirenbaum, Gabby


Los Angeles's Griffith Park is instantly recognizable to movie watchers, with its iconic observatory, sprawling views, and, of course, the Hollywood sign. Tourists and Angelenos alike flock to the hills to hike and take selfies, oblivious to a quiet climate revolution taking place below, in a tree nursery at the park's base.

For Amaiya Mason, that part of Griffith Park is the office.

Mason is a fellow with the California Climate Action Corps, a state-level program that utilizes funds from AmeriCorps, the federal government's national service program, to place mostly young people with local organizations that work on climate-oriented projects. Beginning in September, she was deployed to a nonprofit called City Plants, which runs the Griffith Park tree nursery as part of a public-private partnership with the city.

A native and resident of Compton, Mason spearheads campaigns for City Plants' Tree Ambassador program, which pays community members to lead tree planting efforts in under-resourced neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Korea-town, and Watts, which have little tree coverage and are more susceptible to extreme heat. She has helped coordinate campaigns with the program's 13 ambassadors, each helping plant trees in low-canopy neighborhoods. Along the way, she's developed skills, and a passion, for community organizing--listening to residents' mistrust of government and changing her pitch to accommodate it; working with people in lower income communities to hear about their needs; and hosting events where residents of those neighborhoods take home free trees.

The California Climate Action Corps has already shaped her career goals and opportunities. Upon completion of her term of service, she'll earn $10,000 in federal and state education awards--an "awesome perk," she says, that will allow her to finish her associate's degree at a community college and eventually pursue a graduate degree. And the work she is doing has fortified her long-term plans--bringing climate solutions back to her hometown.

"I'm always like, how can I bring this back to Compton?" Mason said. "I really want to bring a compost facility. I want to have a sustainability office in Compton. I'm getting to work so closely with city planners and other organizations that they're affiliated with, so I get to learn the ins and outs of what needs to happen, so that I can bring it to my people."

Mason's desire to continue her climate work is exactly what the founders of the California Climate Action Corps were hoping for. When Governor Gavin Newsom's office set out to create a climate corps, they focused on three pillars: meaningful climate work, equity, and service. And while numerous conservation corps and local-level climate programs exist around the country, Newsom and his team, led by the chief service officer, Josh Fryday, consciously designed the CCAC to be a national model to show President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats not only how to create a climate corps, but how to do it right.

Indeed, a version of what Newsom has started, on a small scale in California, might well happen nationally. As of early December, the Build Back Better plan approved by the House of Representatives included $15.2 billion in new funding for AmeriCorps to launch a nationwide climate corps. If the program survives at that size and the Build Back Better bill passes, it would represent the largest expansion of national service in decades.

AmeriCorps currently has about 75,000 annual participants. The Civilian Climate Corps would add 300,000 new positions--a monumental victory for both national service and the fight against climate change. But its creation would present three major practical challenges. First, can it be scaled up at such a pace without diluting its impact or creating the kinds of unintended scandals political enemies and the press might seize on? Second, can it fulfill the demands of the left, including greater representation of low-income and marginalized participants than AmeriCorps has traditionally provided, and find them good-paying jobs in the emerging green economy? Third, and most importantly, can a service program focused on one issue--climate change--be successful and unifying when one of the two major political parties denies that the problem even exists?

Some answers to these questions can be found by looking into the details of the federal legislation--and into what is effectively its predecessor, the California Climate Action Corps.

When President Bill Clinton signed the National Community and Service Trust Act in 1993, which authorized the creation of AmeriCorps...

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