It's time to create a Climate-Preparedness Corps

It's time to create a Climate-Preparedness Corps
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Of the many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to heed expert warnings and prepare for devastating outcomes is near the top. 

It is a lesson we ignore at mounting peril when it comes to the cascade of consequences coming from the heating of the planet — from intensifying hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires, to food shortages, the spread of disease and civil unrest. 

Now, not later, is the time to consider the warnings of climate scientists and prepare. 

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Federal and state governments can address the dual challenges of lifting the economy out of pandemic-induced recession and jump-starting preparedness for climate impacts through a unified job-creation strategy that employs millions of people — especially young people facing a tough job market — to design and build climate-ready infrastructure. This is especially necessary in water management, where society will experience some of its biggest disruptions.  

Call it the Climate Preparedness Corps. It could be crafted in the spirit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most popular programs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Over the nine years the CCC operated, from 1933 to 1942, it employed about 3 million people in conservation and development work. It spearheaded the planting of more than 3 billion trees, the building of flood barriers and the construction of trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide. In this way, it not only helped lift the nation out of the Great Depression, it made post-depression society better. 

So what might the CPC do?  

In collaboration with public agencies, it could rehabilitate forested watersheds to reduce the risk of wildfires that threaten the drinking water supplies of tens of millions of people. A collaborative initiative for the upper Rio Grande watershed offers a good model. It could expand irrigation upgrades to support productive farming and ranching while at the same time sustaining river flows and the recreation economy, as innovative projects in Arizona’s Verde Valley are doing. It could work with federal and state agencies and conservation organizations to strategically reconnect rivers to their natural floodplains so as to better control floods, while at the same time restoring wildlife habitat, as River Partners has been doing in California for more than two decades.   

Further, the CPC could scale up the federal soil health initiative that encourages farmers to adopt cultivation practices that boost profits while building resilience against floods and droughts. Many of these practices also curb the stream pollution that causes harmful algal blooms, a growing health threat across the country. The CPC could also work with cities to build rain gardens, bioswales and other forms of green infrastructure to combat flooding and storm water pollution, while beautifying urban landscapes. Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia are among the cities already investing in this working-with-nature strategy. 

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Many federal and state agencies have programs in place that could be adapted and expanded for this work. But they need to be strategically interlinked and re-oriented to climate preparedness. Better flood protection, for example, would require engineers, ecologists and agricultural specialists to design and coordinate a strategy that reactivates floodplains with minimal disruption to farming, while optimizing carbon sequestration and the restoration of fish and wildlife habitat.  

The Green New Deal and the Moving Forward Framework for infrastructure investments are important Congressional initiatives to build upon, including the emphasis on remedying environmental, racial and economic injustices in program design and implementation. 

Some 22 million U.S. workers have lost their jobs in recent weeks. Once the health crisis subsides, the challenge will be to gradually return the nation to fuller employment. Why not direct those efforts toward preparing for the predicted dangers of a rapidly changing climate? 

The CPC could go down in history as one of the nation’s smartest job-creation programs, employing millions of young people to use their strength, smarts and skills to prepare for the climate they and their children will inherit. It’s hard to imagine a better investment to jumpstart our economy than that.

Sandra Postel is the founding director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of “Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity.”