Civilian Climate Corps can help stem rural-urban divide
President Biden’s Infrastructure Plan includes a $10 billion proposal to create a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, designed to put young people to work reducing fire risk, restoring ecosystems and generally building community resilience around the country. The proposal has garnered extensive support, including a stand-alone bill introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The new corps could take many forms, including work crews for national forests and parks, planning assistance for cities and counties, electric vehicle charger installers, and the like. It could — and should — also help bridge some of the urban-rural divide that currently runs through much of the country and virtually every state and defines a good deal of our politics and climate debate. In California, at the University of California, Berkeley, we run an AmeriCorps program called GrizzlyCorps that could provide a transformative model.
GrizzlyCorps sends recent college graduates into rural communities across California to promote regenerative agri-food systems and fire and forest resilience. The response after one year has been overwhelmingly positive, allowing us to nearly double the size for the second year and begin work to add a new program focusing on food waste and food system resilience.
Local communities, particularly those in rural and disadvantaged areas, often struggle to address environmental degradation, impacts of climate change and reduced resilience when they lack dynamic plans for action and tools for implementation. For example, farmers struggling with drought and water shortages may not fully embrace opportunities provided by regenerative practices that could increase soil water retention, carbon sequestration and increased crop yields. Local initiatives demonstrating the benefits of such practices have a greater impact on uptake and can help improve local and regional capacity, which is particularly important during times of disruption. Similarly, in forest communities, as local landowners learn and experience how air quality levels will be closely monitored in the case of prescribed burns, communities become more accepting, leading to improved fire resilience.
GrizzlyCorps members work for 11 months in local communities in conjunction and coordination with rural community entities including Cooperative Extension and Resource Conservation Districts. In forest communities, members work in conjunction with local, state, and federal agencies, forest and industry groups, and NGOs to expand the use of techniques to reduce fire risk and improve watershed and soil health (and increase carbon uptake with broader benefits). In farming communities, fellows work with local producers to improve irrigation, nutrient management, rotational grazing and other ecological practices.
Now, as we absorb the lessons of food system disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, GrizzlyCorps is developing a program for recent graduates and students to work on food system security and resilience, focusing on supply chain, redundancy, reduction of food waste, and improvement of services for those in need, all of which have implications for community resilience and response to climate change disruption.
Agriculture, forests and food systems bind rural and urban communities, and are essential elements of climate change response and community health and resilience. If we did not understand the connection between rural and urban communities before the pandemic, food and supply shortages during the pandemic have made the connection much clearer. The Civilian Climate Corps can make a profound difference, providing service opportunities to young people to work in agricultural and forest communities and on resilience of the food system. At the same time, the work can begin to bridge the divide, as these communities and young corps members lead the country’s efforts to combat climate change and improve our future.
Ken Alex is the director of Project Climate at the UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, & Environment, and was a senior policy advisor to former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Follow the center on Twitter: @BerkeleyLawCLEE.