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The Civilian Climate Corps: Implications for Security in the 21st Century

Jackson Lake and the Tetons from the small island out from CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Camp No. 2, Grand Teton National Park. Ray Ickes and Ned Munn on the rock in foreground, 1933 (Public Domain)

By Katelin Wright

An unexpected opportunity for building domestic climate security awaits in the form of an FDR-reminiscent Civilian Conservation Corps geared toward combating climate change. Coined the “Civilian Climate Corps,” President Biden first introduced the initiative on January 27, 2021, under Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” In the Executive Order, the president tasked the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture to create a Civilian Climate Corps “to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.”  

Since President Biden’s call to create the Corps, a variety of Congressional legislation has been submitted, including H.R. 2241, H.R. 2670, and H.R. 5229, and it is also included in the Build Back Better Act. While each differs in scope, they all include the same basic tenets: 1) Providing a diverse generation of Americans with well-paying union jobs; 2) Affording more employment opportunities to those often underrepresented in conservation work, such as women and people of color; 3) Strengthening the resilience of U.S. communities; 4) Conserving and restoring public lands and waters alongside protecting biodiversity and increasing carbon sequestration and reforestation; and 5) Furthering the advancement of environmental justice. 

While a Civilian Climate Corps offers a plethora of benefits for America’s youth, the U.S. economy, and the environment, it also provides national security benefits by bolstering the climate resiliency of American communities. The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) emphasizes building resiliency in its 2020 Report, A Security Threat Assessment of Climate Change. As explained in the report, it will be imperative for the world to “‘climate-proof’ environments, infrastructures, institutions, and systems on which human security depends.” Within the United States, the Civilian Climate Corps could serve as a mechanism of ‘climate-proofing.’ In turn, its work could help strengthen both the national and homeland security of the United States.

Escalating risks

With each increasing decimal of temperature rise, the United States will have to manage escalating complexities of a warming world. Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments will have to deal with the immediate security consequences of increasing severe weather, rising sea levels, increased droughts, biodiversity loss, and more, alongside the secondary and tertiary effects that result from these events. Take, for example, the case of Puerto Rico. Before the devastating impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, the island was already suffering from governance, economic, and infrastructure challenges. When the storms hit in quick succession, therefore, the government found itself ill-equipped to handle the immediate damage left in the wake of the hurricanes. Rapid recovery proved even more tenuous. According to a 2018 FEMA Report, water systems were left inoperable, landslides shut down entire roads, and the island’s electrical grid failed. For months, residents were left without power and had limited access to essential supplies and health care services. As a result, Puerto Rico suffered more than $50 billion worth of economic loss, an official death toll of 2,975, and a significantly damaged homeland security infrastructure. In turn, the island became even more susceptible to future extreme weather events and the effects of climate change.   

Security for the most vulnerable

The 2017 storms and their ramifications exemplify how climate change can magnify and compound pre-existing risks within a community. In A Climate Security Plan for America (CSPA), the CCS’s Climate and Security Advisory Group highlighted the need to address these risks by building climate resilience. The report recommends that the United States should strengthen its security infrastructure by investing in critical civilian infrastructure, “including low-carbon footprint projects designed to significantly lower the scale and scope of climate change.” Projects completed by the Civilian Climate Corps could do just that, starting with those that are the least prepared to withstand and recover from the effects of a warming world.

To a varying degree, all Americans will have to deal with the consequences of climate change. However, those within underserved communities will be disproportionately affected. In a recent EPA report, the agency found that underserved communities are often the least able to prepare for and recover from the effects of climate change. In a similar finding, the United Nations contends that the poor, women, children, and indigenous populations will be particularly susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. The Civilian Climate Corps could focus on these inequities. For example, a Tribal Civilian Climate Corps could prioritize conservation projects on federally recognized Indian land. Under the Department of Agriculture, projects could be geared towards conservation efforts in rural and urban areas that provide human security benefits to Americans. These projects might include building bioretention systems in cities, such as green roofs, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, installing solar panels, or building floodwalls to reinforce vulnerable coastal infrastructure. The Civilian Climate Corps could also counteract environmental degradation and biodiversity loss within these same communities.

Further, the Civilian Climate Corps could help supplement the work of other federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in addressing risks to vulnerable communities. One of the agency’s core missions is to help state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments prepare for and build resilience to disasters. Frequently, DHS accomplishes this goal by providing grants, training, and various emergency management resources. For example, under the FEMA BRIC program, SLTT governments can apply for grant money to reduce the hazards they face from climate change. These grants, however, are highly competitive. Thus, the Civilian Climate Corps could fill the gap in communities not selected for DHS grants. Additionally, the Corps could supply the physical boots on the ground to complete the hazard mitigation projects–something that DHS nor its sub-agencies currently provide.

Managing climate security impacts on public lands

A well-funded Civilian Climate Corps could also take on critical projects on public lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Poor land management and conservation practices have contributed to many of the recent climate-linked disasters that have plagued the United States. Case in point, the highly destructive fires seen throughout California and the ever-extending wildfire season seen throughout the western portion of the United States. Corps members might clear out forest undergrowth and remove dead or fallen vegetation to aid local fire management. Comparable projects to stabilize shorelines or restore wetlands could lessen storm surges and flooding accompanying hurricanes. All of which are essential to building climate resilience and climate security throughout the United States.   

A lesson from the past, a mission for the future

There is no one size fits all solution to the challenges that a warming world holds. This is particularly true when considering the substantial divisions within many American communities. When it comes to building climate resilience, the needs of a rural Midwestern town, for example, will likely differ from that of a large metropolitan area. Hence the need for programs that acknowledge and focus on the varying needs of communities throughout the country. A Civilian Climate Corps could do just this by tailoring and contributing to resiliency at the SLTT level, especially in underserved areas. At the same time, it could supplement the work being done by other federal agencies, like DHS, to combat the climate risks many American communities are already facing. In turn, such efforts would bolster the overall foundation of the U.S. security infrastructure.

Climate change will inevitably and drastically reshape the world and the United States’ national security. The roots of the Civilian Climate Corps may lie in the past, but its lessons provide viable strategies towards combating some of the direct impacts of climate change.

Katelin Wright is a Climate and Security Advisory Group Climate and Security Fellow.

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