Climate Change Corps (A Modest Proposal)

On Monday, President Obama took the oath of office and delivered his second inaugural address. Many expected an optimistic, bipartisan appeal, similar to his speech in 2008. Instead, he came out of his corner swinging, directly addressing a number of progressive goals. He became the first president to mention gay Americans in an inaugural address, he defended the social safety net, and, to the surprise of many (including me) he devoted seven whole sentences to climate change. 

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."


Now, as this was an inaugural address, it was pretty slim on actual policy proposals. Spokesman Jay Carney was quick to tamp down excitement on Tuesday, noting that climate change was not a "singular priority" of the administration, and a carbon tax was not in the works. Carbon taxation has become a toxic political topic, derided by the right as an economy-killer and feared by the left because of its regressive nature. Despite popular perception that such a tax is the product of spendthrift, regulation-loving liberals, carbon taxation was actually the brainchild of Republicans, which suggests at least some basis for  negotiated common ground.

But truly combatting climate change, as the president suggested, is a lot more complicated than pricing carbon. Superstorm Sandy, and Katrina before her, highlighted glaring problems with our emergency readiness, flood control systems, seawalls, underground transportation networks, and electrical infrastructure. Alternative energy sources need to be designed, tested, and implemented.

Carbon capture systems need to be scaled to a point where they can make a difference. Heavy transportation -- railroads, ships, and trucks -- need to become more logistically intelligent and energy efficient. Emergency housing needs to be built.

Design Observer's Nancy Levinson recently published an article arguing for a robust government role in addressing these challenges. I agree. In 1933, it took Congress four months to sign a law and mobilize a quarter-million young men into an economic stimulus program, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC undertook projects in ten categories, mostly focused on erosion control, wildfire suppression, road building, and tree planting. 

Four months. Today, it takes Congress longer than that to decide what it wants for lunch. The CCC lives on, in a neutered form, as AmeriCorps, which provides young, service-minded folks an opportunity to work for a local non-profit for up to two years. In exchange, they receive a couple grand in college loan forgiveness and a stipend so small it is supplemented with food stamps.


Start with a rebranding: the Climate Change Corps. Follow up with a commitment to hire the same amount of people originally employed in the thirties -- capped at 300,000 at any one time, or one percent of the population. Pay folks a living wage, offer health insurance, and give meaningful college loan forgiveness, up to $50,000. Divide this new labor pool into four divisions: Infrastructure, Engineering, Architecture, and Conservation.

Infrastructure can get started on modernizing our electrical grid, building high-speed rail, and making our transportation systems resilient in the face of super storms. Engineering can begin the long process of flood control, wetland design, and biofuel production. Architecture can design and build emergency shelters, green low-income housing, stilted buildings, and renovate federal facilites to the latest energy efficiency standards. Conservation can weatherize homes, deconstruct abandon buildings for material salvage, start urban farms, and plant trees. 

Stimulus has become a dirty word, turned into an epithet by conservatives eager to discredit government's role in averting economic disaster in 2008. But, almost five years out, data is slowly emerging that proves the stimulus may have worked much better than anyone expected. That said, a big new government program cannot go unfunded. Since a carbon tax is too far-reaching to be politically palatable right now, how about a small increase to the federal gas tax? Americans consume 367 million gallons of gasoline per day.

Currently, federal excise tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. Round it up to an even 20. That's $214 million a year, with the added benefit of curbing consumption a touch. That pot of money will cover payroll, Medicare could enroll employees for healthcare, and money for construction could be raised through local bond issues or other federal agencies. 

This is our world war, our moon shot, our fight. It's about time we did something big.