States grow volunteer corps to fight climate change

Several states have launched versions of a climate corps, reminiscent of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps but with a focus on climate change issues.
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at the Presidio Tunnel Tops before the signing of a new climate agreement with Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier John Horgan in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

State governments searching for ways to combat and mitigate the effects of a changing climate are turning to a new generation of volunteers eager to clean up their communities — and to pay off some student debt while they’re at it.

Several states have launched versions of a climate corps, programs run through or modeled on AmeriCorps to promote national service for those who are just beginning their careers or just out of college. The programs are reminiscent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, created by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, though with a modern focus on climate change issues.

“It attracts young people whose main interest is either saving the planet and climate change or just improving their community,” said Robert Cordova, a team leader with the California Climate Action Corps. “It’s impossible to not feel like I’m having an impact.”

Cordova, 22, is one of six team leaders overseeing 110 fellows in the California program. He is in the midst of an 11-month term of service, in which he spends his days shuttling between nonprofits in Fresno, his home town, marketing volunteer events and managing volunteers.

California has committed more funding to its various volunteer corps — about $150 million spread across several programs that employ hundreds of recent college graduates and young workers.

In exchange for their terms, the workers get a living stipend of about $30,000, and an additional $10,000 in scholarship money they can use to pay down student loans or toward a future degree.

“We’re going to have an army of young people in California nearly twice the size of the Peace Corps,” said Josh Fryday, head of the California Volunteers Commission. “You’re putting kids to work, you’re creating professional skills for them.”

At least seven other states have launched plans like California’s. Colorado Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera (D), whose office oversees volunteer programs through Serve Colorado, said the programs can give young workers job skills they can carry through their careers.

“We’re really trying to make it more of a career path to other jobs. That’s one of the carrots,” Primavera said in an interview. “Seeing the impact of their work is really important. It’s a way for people to give back to the country and the state.”

Maine is kicking off a climate corps plan with a modest pilot program. While FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds of thousands of people out of work during the Depression, Hannah Pingree, who heads the Office of Policy Innovation and the Future under Gov. Janet Mills (D), said this generation of volunteers is motivated by something else.

“Young people are very passionate about climate. They want to get engaged, they want to find ways to help,” Pingree said. “It’s not a great-paying lifetime job, but it’s a meaningful way for people right out of college to engage in this work and get good trade experience.”

Other states are likely to consider their own climate corps plans, after President Biden issued an executive order in January 2021 instructing federal agencies to establish a national model. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has spoken to several current and incoming governors about his state’s project, Fryday said.

“Where it’s actually getting modeled and done is in the states,” Fryday said. “It takes investment. You actually have to build the infrastructure.”

Cordova, the team lead in Fresno, said most of his fellows intend to go back to school. He said he considered a career as a history teacher, but now he wants to get an advanced degree in anthropology or environmental science.

“We took this job because we’re passionate, not for the money, definitely,” Cordova said. “I figured public service is the way to go.”