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Establishing a climate service program is crucial — youth must help lead it

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In his first 100 days, President Biden has wasted no time in taking bold action against climate change. After re-entering the Paris Agreement and appointing more climate experts to leadership roles than at any time in history, the president has outlined billions in investments in green technology infrastructure and R&D. But one lesser-discussed proposal may be more instrumental to the future lives of Americans than any other: the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. (CCC) to employ young people in the climate fight.

That’s because young people’s futures have never been more in doubt. Catastrophic warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius looks increasingly certain. It is young people and their children who will have to live in this warmed up world. Communities of color, which skew disproportionately young, are also disproportionately vulnerable to climate hazards. To add insult to ecological injury, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely damaged youth career prospects. In the United States alone, the pandemic has disrupted 70 percent of young people’s education, and one in six young Americans became unemployed at the beginning of the pandemic.

A program to train youth for jobs in climate adaptation, mitigation and crisis preparation could protect against some of the warming climate’s worst effects. It could also keep young people set back by the pandemic engaged in the workforce, and train a new generation of skilled workers, from urban planners to civil engineers to architects. In other words, it could be exactly what Millennials and Zoomers need for a secure future. But as it stands today, Biden’s CCC does not go far enough. To achieve the inspiring possibility of spurring true generational recovery, it must evolve in crucial ways.

For starters, Biden’s CCC must be bigger than proposed. The $10 billion included in this administration’s infrastructure outline is a substantial down payment. But this would fund a workforce much smaller than the mass mobilization required to set youth’s economic and environmental prospects on a substantially higher trajectory. Significant additional funding would be required to ensure that fighting climate change is accessible to anyone who wants to serve. With likely short- and long-term economic benefits from a new generation of skilled workers, a much larger CCC would be a wise investment: A study from the Global Commission on Adaptation shows that investments in climate-resilient infrastructure could be paid back more than three times over.

Just as importantly, the CCC should include a clear role for youth leadership. However we activate our communities to protect themselves, young people must also play pivotal roles in leading it. It’s been youth energy that has lit the fire under what little progress has been made on climate to date. Ninety-eight percent of young people believe that governments should take the lead in protecting the environment against a heating atmosphere. Yet, 59 percent of young people feel that their voices are not being heard on climate. This must be corrected. After thirty years of emissions rising despite the best efforts of our current leaders and their predecessors, it is simply time to turn over leadership of the fight against climate change to youth, where possible.

That’s why, as the core of its Youth Environment Service (YES) campaign, the Berggruen Institute is organizing deliberative assemblies and town hall meetings with youth and policymakers. These events will focus on helping youth build consensus on climate service program design and function. The outcomes of these discussions will be reconstituted as policy proposals that the Institute will share with its network of policymakers and stakeholders. The goal of the program is to build a repeatable model for harnessing youth activism and energy toward action by those with the power to direct government resources and prestige. 

Youth are eager to save the world. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future campaign is the largest transnational movement in human history. And young people are willing to serve: A survey by Service Year Alliance sampling over 2,300 Americans showed that 44 percent of young Americans are interested in national service, including 60 percent of young people of color.  

In building recovery from COVID-19 and preventing climate disaster, the Biden administration should prioritize harnessing this energy and courage. No generation has faced as long odds of prosperity as youth today. Equipped and empowered to fight climate change, youth can build society back better than it was before. A new generation of our best global citizens is united in shared commitment and action against the greatest challenge of our time.                                                             

Dawn Nakagawa is executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute and co-director of the Institute’s Future of Democracy program, which works to rebuild social cohesion and build new channels for democratic participation and engagement. 

Tags climate activism Climate change Joe Biden Youth

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