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Mr. President-elect, America needs a Civilian Climate Corps

Mr. President-elect, America needs a Civilian Climate Corps
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We are emergency physicians practicing on the frontlines of the pandemic, witnessing firsthand the consequences of a public health response in disarray as COVID-19 continues to flare throughout the country. 

We are also health educators who have dedicated careers to advancing policy and education initiatives on social justice and health and human rights. And like many of us, we are struggling to understand how meaningful policy can emerge from a new president and a potentially divided Congress.

According to the Biden campaign, there will be four key priorities for the new administration: the pandemic, the economy, racial injustice and climate change. Perhaps not since President Franklin Roosevelt first entered the White House have there been such challenging crises, on multiple fronts. Fortunately, that administration had an idea that may have appeal for Biden’s first 100 days. One that is smart policy and can advance human dignity in the same effort: a reimagined CCC: a Civilian Climate Corps.

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Established as the Civilian Conservation Corps by executive order in 1933, the CCC was a demonstrable investment in America’s commons. The program boosted public morale and provided vulnerable citizens economic opportunity in exchange for national service from which all Americans benefited, and perhaps most importantly, enhanced a sense of national cohesiveness.

As we look to a world beyond COVID-19, the insidious encroachment of climate change continues. The Biden administration will have to devise a strategy to protect a nation from extreme heat events, sea level rise, displacement from climate-energized hurricanes and longer and more intense wildfires.

Is this still a partisan issue? For most Americans, it is not. A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis found that 60 percent view climate change as a major threat to the wellbeing of the United States. More than half of Republicans surveyed and an overwhelming share of Democrats favored a range of initiatives to reduce the impacts of climate change.

For those who think a national service program is only viable in a bygone era and another example of executive overreach, one that could never survive the scarlet letter of “socialism” in today’s political climate, don’t be so sure. Recent public opinion research has found that the American public is widely supportive of national service. Eighty percent of voters (70 percent Republicans, 90 percent Democrats) back increasing federal investment to help communities respond to and recover from COVID-19, specifically regarding funds directed toward graduates and the unemployed.

What could this look like?

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CCC activities from the 1930’s mesh well with contemporary climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, and include infrastructure improvements, erosion and flood control, forest protection, ecosystem health, mosquito control and emergency work. A new corps could empower current climate change work of U.S. government agencies, such as conducting emergency preparedness training in Oklahoma; reducing flood risk in Georgia; helping Midwest cattle producers anticipate heat stress that may affect their animals; identifying invasive plants and helping on-the-ground efforts to build the resilience of natural vegetation, and implementing resilience and wellness programs for wildland firefighters. 

The tools now available for cheap, scalable education through online offerings could allow volunteers to both advance the mission of a corps and gain valuable certifications in STEM topics such as earth science, economics of land conservation, renewable energy technologies, and core competencies in mathematics, communication and management. This public investment in on-the-job education could be a multidirectional relationship — individual participants gain valuable skills and in turn serve to educate the youth and distill their experiences amongst members of their community at large and disseminate knowledge on the vital links between robust ecosystems and our health.

Is this reinvigoration of a Depression-era project just a distraction from the hard realities facing America? Hardly. National service and education go hand-in-hand, and some of the most respected voices in national security have cited citizen education as the most important source of long-term American power. Admiral William McRaven, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command has been a longtime advocate for education as a core national security issue, and a Council on Foreign Relations report chaired by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice, cited that a lack of educational preparedness poses threats to several national security fronts including economic growth and competitiveness, global awareness and U.S. unity and cohesion.

The president-elect has a mandate for innovative and bold ideas. A Civilian Climate Corps could enrich the lives of thousands of its volunteers and through their work bring benefit to countless more. Its existence would be a palpable demonstration of America’s embodiment of the best attributes of the human spirit, and its successes help to rehabilitate the soul of a nation.

Jay Lemery, MD, is the co-director of the Climate & Health Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-author of "Enviromedics: the Impact of Climate Change on Human Health."

Lewis Goldfrank, MD, is the Herbert W. Adams professor of the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU-Langone Health Center, and the founding editor of Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies.