David Baake, a Democratic primary candidate for Congress in New Mexico’s Second District, issued a call in July for a new CCC, a “Climate Conservation Corps.” Modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, Baake proposed putting Americans to work installing energy-efficient technology, retrofitting homes in low-income communities, and taking on “other projects that contribute meaningfully to the fight against climate change, like…reforestation and wetland restoration.”
It is not the first time that a liberal politician has evoked memories of the CCC. The New Deal CCC was wildly popular throughout its nine-year existence, and its artifacts, from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Pacific Coast Trail, are beloved today. It revived broad sections of America’s natural landscape and enriched the lives of millions of young enrollees. Rexford Tugwell, adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, asserted that the CCC “quickly became too popular for criticism.” The CCC disbanded in 1942, overwhelmed by national defense needs and the US entry into World War II. But ever since, policymakers periodically revive the idea of reestablishing it—or at least portions of it.
During the Great Recession of 2008, a few economists, including former secretary of labor Robert Reich, said that this country should pursue a comprehensive jobs program that would create a new Civilian Conservation Corps. Yet, once the Recovery Act passed in 2009, with its infrastructure stimulus, the call for a CCC quieted down. Still, President Obama did put forward a much smaller five-year $1-billion corps-type effort. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he advocated for a Veteran Job Corps program for individuals returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would employ 20,000 veterans and provide visitor programs, restore habitat, protect cultural resources, eradicate invasive species, and operate park facilities. But the presidential election was coming up, and in a party-line vote, Republicans rejected the more modest corps proposal.
Three years later, Senator Bernie Sanders, not yet running for the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed a $1 trillion jobs bill, jam-packed with infrastructure proposals for roads, bridges, transit systems, wastewater treatment plants, airports, seaports, dams, levees, and other brick-and-mortar projects. Once again, the suggestion of a CCC approach appeared within Sanders’s proposal, with a call for $15 billion over five years to boost our National Park system. This was bigger than what anyone in the Obama administration had proposed, but still short of a sweeping CCC-style jobs-and-environment program.