A Missed Opportunity

As President Obama nears the homestretch of his final term in office, climate action has become one of his top priorities. This past year, the U.S. entered agreements with China and India to address climate change and public health through investing in clean energy and reducing greenhouse gases. These cooperative initiatives are complemented by the Lima talks and the build up to the Paris climate talks, where a global plan to reduce green-house gases is essential to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Yet, with all of this headway made, the planet may still be on course to see global temperatures increase by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. If this occurs, it will have lasting effects on weather patterns and affect the lives of nearly every human. President Obama and the executive agencies have been working to mitigate the human contribution to climate change, but he would be unwise to not improve the preparedness of buildings, infrastructure, and our natural resources.

In late January, President Obama issued an executive order establishing a federal flood risk measurement standard, and just a few days later, he released his $4 trillion budget request for fiscal year 2016, which included nearly $1 billion for resilience projects and another $1.19 billion for research and development for natural resources, ecosystems, and habitats. These included funding for programs addressing floods, coastal infrastructure, droughts, wildfires, FEMA pre mitigation, and an online climate toolkit to share information. For a full breakdown of the budget request with respect to clean energy, buildings, climate, and transportation take a look at this issue brief by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).

In the budget were two very interesting pilot programs, the Resilience Corps (under the AmeriCorps umbrella) and the Every Kid in the Park Initiative. These two programs aim to accomplish two goals: increase resilience of our natural resources and instill an appreciation of the environment in the public, while creating jobs. What if I were to tell you a federal program with the same goals had already been implemented in the US on a much larger scale nearly eight decades ago? There was such a program and it was called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The CCC was included in President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in 1933 as a work relief program during the Great Depression. It provided jobs for unskilled laborers in conservation and the development of natural resources on public lands. The program was quite simple; young unmarried men would sign up for six month periods and venture out into public lands to set up camps and carry out conservation work. The natural resources restoration projects included structural improvements, building recreation facilities, erosion and flood control, improving forest culture and protecting forests from fires and overzealous insects. The workers built their own camps and they were provided food, clothing, and a fair wage, some of which had to be sent home to family members.

The program was widely popular with the public. A Gallup poll found 82% of those polled responded positively to the question, “are you in favor of the CCC”. Before the program was defunded in 1942 as a result of the US involvement in World War II, the CCC had employed over 3 million young Americans and had planted over 3 billion trees, while creating over 800 national parks.

The CCC was enormously successful in using environmental and natural resource conservation as a work relief program in a turbulent economic time in US history. It also had one added benefit; it instilled an appreciation of the great outdoors in all of the CCC’s participants. The success of this program led to the creation of similar conservation groups such as the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) and the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and the greater AmeriCorps community service organization. There were also many YCC programs created on the state level. President Obama included $4 million for the local partnership Resilience Corps pilot program, which is expected to create 200 jobs. The areas of resilience work the program will complete will closely follow areas both the CCC and NCCC have worked in.

Resilience of our natural resources and the greater environment is important because it minimizes the effects of natural occurrences such as floods, landslides, and wild fires. Mitigating these events can support healthy ecosystems and biodiversity which humans rely on for economic benefit. In his article Natural Inequality, Patrick Behrer discusses the importance of natural capital and how many economists miscalculate the strain imposed on our natural resources from economic activities. He likens natural capital to a bank account from which we continuously withdraw, but never deposit funds into. The Resilience Corps, the NCCC, and the YCC are all programs which aim to make deposits into that bank account and President Obama, through his budget request, has shown his commitment to start spending a little less and saving more of our natural capital.

Image credit Hopkins.m.s courtesy Wikimedia Commons depicting a trailhead on the Colorado Trail near Buena Vista, CO, U.S.A.

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