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How climate activists won the American Climate Corps

October 18, 2023

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence.

Last month, President Joe Biden announced the launch of the American Climate Corps, or ACC — a program that will train some 20,000 young people in careers in climate and clean energy. The program, which hearkens back to President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps but with an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity, will put young people to work restoring wetlands, installing solar panels and advancing environmental justice across the country.

For the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization at the forefront of the U.S. climate fight, the passage of the ACC was the culmination of four years of activism and advocacy work. In a conversation with Sunrise co-founder, President and former National Political Director Evan Weber, we discussed the movement’s organizing tactics, the work of sustaining momentum while advocating for often slow-moving policy changes and the ways in which the passage of the American Climate Corps can be seen as an organizing victory.

What kind of organizing paved the way for the passage of the American Climate Corps program?

I think this is a colorful example of a broad paint brush of tactics that contributed to the win that is the American Climate Corps. These tactics included 500 young people getting arrested for blocking the White House in the summer of 2021 while demanding a fully-funded civilian climate corps in the Build Back Better negotiations. They also included behind-the-scenes lobbying and policy negotiation, coalition building and the electoral work that delivered some of the highest youth voter turnout in modern history — with climate being the reason that happened. The latter is also the reason President Biden went more aggressive on climate and updated his climate policy.

There was also a lot of local organizing and coalition building in New York. We got together with local labor unions and community organizations and did both community organizing and coalition building that helped us get Sen. Chuck Schumer to boldly champion full funding for a civilian climate corps in the Build Back Better negotiations. That kind of kept it alive as a political idea for as long as Build Back Better lived [which was until December 2021, when it was effectively scuttled by Sen. Joe Manchin]. Then, with the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, there was a lot of, frankly, quiet, behind-the-scenes, pressure and negotiation with key allies in the White House.

I think that people who exist in the policy advocacy space often look out at these “radical rabble rousers” and will kind of pooh-pooh how they’re scaring our political allies or harming us for the next election. Then you have people in the movement who look down at those doing inside game lobbying as sellouts. I think the American Climate Corps is really an example of how it takes a variety of tactics and a variety of different actors working to both push politics as far as we can, when we can, and then squeeze out what policy wins we’re able to achieve from the political windows of opportunity that movements create.

Given that the American Climate Corps hinges on jobs, was it important to build relationships with labor unions? How did the Sunrise Movement go about doing so?

Those of us who started the Sunrise Movement kind of grew up at a time in the youth climate movement where there were these large, legacy organizations from the 1970s environmental movement that were dominant, but not very much was happening on climate action. There was also a robust, growing and inspirational grassroots environmental justice movement led by community organizations made up of mostly Black, brown and white working-class folks that were doing a lot of agitation of those legacy organizations to get them to see the intersections. Then there was a robust anti-fossil fuel movement that was doing really important work to call out the fossil fuel industry, but pissing off the labor movement. At that time, a lot of the dominant voice of the climate movement was basically saying no to everything, shutting down projects,and killing jobs without a clear message about how to bring everybody along.

So that was the water that we were swimming in when not a whole lot was happening on climate change, and the climate movement did next to nothing to show up in the 2016 elections. We were looking around at that picture and basically thinking that something’s got to change. The stuff the environmental justice movement was putting out was, we felt, right. Black, brown and working people needed to see themselves in the climate movement, and it needed to not be about parts per million but about livable communities, clean air and water, safety, good food and good housing. We thought there was a real opportunity to make climate change more about opportunity and about not only stopping the bad but building the good.

We were also very fortunate to be moving the Sunrise Movement forward at a time where the economics of renewable energy had finally flipped. We could legitimately say there wasn’t a choice between affordable energy and clean energy and that we could start to say there shouldn’t have to be a choice between good jobs and a safe climate. That was what we really wanted to push, and we knew we were going to need the labor movement to do it.

We started having conversations with mentors and elders who had been working in this space for a long time — folks in the Labor Network for Sustainability and folks at the BlueGreen Alliance — and began to forge some of those connections as we put out our narrative. Once we launched the Green New Deal, there was tension because we were saying “stop the bad” while also saying “build the good.” So we definitely didn’t solve all the problems of climate action and the climate movement overnight, but we were able to make some headway and create some openings.

We also encouraged our members and our organizers across the country — as they’re going out and building connections and relationships in their local communities — to prioritize environmental justice organizations, racial justice organizations and local labor unions. So again, this was all very imperfect. There were lots of mistakes along the way. But we were building these connections at a local level from the bottom up as we were also building them at a national level from the top down.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introducing the Civilian Climate Corps Act of 2021 outside the Capitol.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introducing the Civilian Climate Corps Act of 2021 alongside Sunrise Movement. (Facebook/Sunrise Movement)

How did the Sunrise Movement go about building partnerships with environmental justice groups who, as you mentioned, have been advocating for intersectional environmentalism for quite some time?

It was not easy. It never is. There was actually a point in time near the end of the Build Back Better negotiations where the politicians in the Senate and the House were basically trying to pit the funding for the climate corps against environmental justice programs, which is really pitting the youth movement against the environmental justice movement. Basically, trying to get us to divide amongst ourselves.

At that moment, we reached out to our environmental justice allies — who we had been building with, not without tension, for many years — and we decided to come together again. We put out political memos and press releases saying how these things needed to go hand-in-hand and how the civilian climate corps was going to advance environmental justice and racial justice. That wasn’t something that we pulled out of thin air as we were developing the policy vision for it, it was something that we were baking into it.

AmeriCorps, for example, has been this program that parachuted a lot of kids with educational and class privilege into random communities, then they just disappear after a couple years. But we said, this needs to be a program that really recruits from communities and reinvests in them. It needs to be about career pathways and workforce development, and it needs to be targeted at disadvantaged and frontline communities. So it’s about that organizing and coalition building that you do along the way, but it’s also about having that reflected in policy commitments, so when they try to pit you against each other you stay united.

To what extent does the Sunrise Movement consider the American Climate Corps a victory?

A fun thing about movements is that they’re made up of lots of people, and we may all have different opinions. During the Build Back Better fight, we were pushing for a program that was much bigger and would have created about 300,000 jobs over a decade. The program that we did end up winning through executive action and through the funding that we passed through the Inflation Reduction Act and infrastructure bill is going to create 20,000 jobs in its first year. The goal is to then grow those jobs through partnerships with labor unions and state corps as well. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you can see a pathway to getting 300,000 jobs or even more over that time period.

In that sense, if you just look at the numbers in what we were fighting for and what we won, I feel like it’s a real victory. It has a lot of the components about committing to investment and placement in disadvantaged and marginalized communities, a real commitment to career pathways and workforce development, pre-apprenticeship programs, and partnerships with unions that I think can make it a really powerful and meaningful program.

But it’s definitely not everything we wanted. It’s not a climate jobs guarantee, and it’s certainly not a Green New Deal. You could also look at this victory as, out of all of the climate demands, doing something on jobs and doing something for young people, which the Biden administration has shown they find easier than some of the harder asks we’re making, such as stopping new fossil fuel exploration and committing to bold executive action through a climate emergency. So I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate our victories when we have them. But also be clear eyed about what we’re fighting for and make sure that we don’t stop to celebrate for too long.

Given that this program has existed in some iteration since 2019, do you have any advice for how movements can sustain momentum when it comes to slow-moving policy changes? 

Movements are hard, to be honest. The last several years of the Sunrise Movement after the 2020 election, the loss of Bernie Sanders, the loss of Build Back Better — which definitely held more elements of our vision of the Green New Deal than the Inflation Reduction Act — were hard years for our movement. We saw internal tensions boil up, we saw membership losses, and we saw the political light and media spotlight we enjoyed and gained some temporary power from fade away at different points.

So you can feel like you’re on top of the world at one moment and six months later, you might feel like you’re as low as ever. But I think you can continue to sustain hope from a vision that’s worth believing in, people who are committed to that vision, and continued investment in leaders who are committed to building people power. I would also say that movements should fundamentally prioritize that.

Movements should also think about how they can develop political leadership that is able to translate movement energy and wins into the real material policy changes that we’re fighting for and that can help create a better world. These policy changes can really continue to extract some victories from the people power that was built and existed at its waxing crescent, even when human energy wanes. The ebbs and flows and ups and downs of movements are something that are always going to be with us. So investing in our own internal political leadership, as well as investing in our electoral power so we can institutionalize our wins through champions of our own that actually make it into elected office help create a different kind of sustainability.

What can still be done to ensure that the ACC measures up to its vision?

People that care about this should and will have opportunities to continue to shape it, particularly over the next year. So the announcement was just that: an announcement that yes, it’s happening. There were a few executive orders that moved more things into place to make it possible, but a lot of the work to actually implement it and design the program is still going to be underway over the next year before the program launches in full and the first class of American Climate Corps members begin. So there will be opportunities to give input on additional rulemaking that people should keep their eyes out for. There will also be some engagement and listening sessions happening directly from the White House and that will be an opportunity to shape this.

A number of groups have created the Partnership for the Civilian Climate Corps, and they’re going to be actively engaging the White House and the different agencies that are responsible for implementing the Climate Corps to make sure that it lives up to our collective standards of good paying jobs, investing in marginalized communities and real career pathways. Down the line, hopefully, it can continue to grow through those partnerships with unions and state corps as well as additional appropriations from the federal government itself.

What’s next for the Sunrise Movement?

I’m really excited about the next chapter that the Sunrise Movement is embarking on right now. We’re investing and redoubling down on our youth organizing with our Green New Deal for Schools campaign, committing to multiracial, cross-class organizing through our Green New Deal for Communities campaign and continuing to push President Biden and the Democratic establishment for more. We need President Biden to demand a climate emergency and to do more to stop the export and exploration of fossil fuels like he had previously committed to. We weren’t out here just for an American Climate Corps. We’re out here to win it all for a Green New Deal.

Alessandra Bergamin

Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance investigative journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on the intersection of environmental conflict and human rights around the world. She has written for The Baffler, In These Times, Harper’s Magazine, National Geographic, TheNewYorker.com, The Lily, and DAME Magazine among others. She is currently reporting on the overlap of military violence and environmental activism for The Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.