Environment activist Kidus Girma (26) walked about 644km from New Orleans to Houston over six weeks in May and June, on a march aimed at bringing hope to communities who have been hit hard by the effects of a warming climate.
Mr Girma and his dozens of companions spoke to those they met along the way about a new federal programme - enacted by US President Joe Biden in January and now seeking funds in Congress - that would create jobs and tackle climate change nationwide.
The backers of the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), as the programme is known, say it could add up to 1.5 million new green jobs as the climate crisis worsens and parts of the United States continue to struggle with high unemployment.
It is part of a mammoth piece of legislation Democrats are hoping to move forward, though key details of the programme remain under discussion - including how it would be administered and hiring managed, and how much federal funding it would receive.
The programme, which has seen a major surge in support from Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks, is modelled in part on a 1930s Depression-era initiative that put some three million people back to work on projects to improve public lands.
On his walk, Mr Girma stopped in places including Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he helped rebuild homes destroyed by last year’s Hurricane Laura - the type of work the corps could undertake on a larger scale, he said.
“There are so many homes that needed some basic degree of repair, and they needed to rely on volunteer labour,” said Mr Girma, an organiser with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-focused environmental advocacy group.
“Talking about what a robust, fully-funded Civilian Climate Corps could mean to places like Lake Charles was really important,” he said. “People were really excited.”
In recent weeks, activists have also demonstrated outside the White House to drum up support for such a corps, as well as targeting politicians in their home states.
“It’s something we found our movement really mobilised around,” said Ellen Sciales, communications director for the Sunrise Movement. “This is the one that really speaks so much to young people.”
Their efforts appear to be getting results - in late July, more than 80 lawmakers signed a letter calling for the corps to be implemented as part of the budget reconciliation package.
On August 9, funding for the proposal was included in an official outline for that package, which could be passed with only Democratic support.
That same day, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major climate science report which highlighted the urgent need to prepare and protect people as extreme weather and rising seas hit harder than predicted around the world.
The legacy of the decade-long 1930s programme, called the Civilian Conservation Corps, can still be seen across the United States. Its members helped create 800 new state parks and 10,000km-plus of hiking trails, and planted over two billion trees, according to Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at the New College of Florida.
In his June testimony on Capitol Hill, Mr Paul said there was “substantial economic and environmental need for a new CCC”.
Lawmakers have been proposing federal jobs programmes focused on climate-related measures for years, but the idea for the Civilian Climate Corps rose to prominence during the 2020 presidential primaries.
Mr Biden included it in an executive action he signed in his first week in office, saying he wanted to “put a new generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters”.
But he offered few specifics and has needed to await action from Congress.
Senator Edward J Markey, who co-sponsored a key bill on the issue, said it was “critical” to include “an equitable and robust Civilian Climate Corps in any infrastructure and budget reconciliation package”.
“If fully funded, it would put more than a million people to work in good-paying jobs that will strengthen and rebuild neighborhoods and cities across the country as we battle the climate crisis,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Interior Department, which would lead on the corps, said it could not provide further information.
Mr Markey’s bill includes an extensive list of potential corps activities, including restoring shorelines and wildernesses, controlled forest burns and reforestation, and making communities more energy-efficient and resilient.
“It could be helping out with public parks but also caring for the elderly, conserving public land and putting up solar panels, creating graphics to promote climate policies in your city or organising local food programmes,” Ms Sciales said.
That broad scope has prompted scepticism from some.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board termed it “part green-jobs programme, part behavioural hectoring squad, part social-justice brigade, and part union-recruitment effort”.
The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute has questioned the efficacy of big government works programmes in a series of blog posts published last month.
Source – The Irish Independent