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Commentary Energy & Environment

Opinion: New Climate Corps Programs Must Meet the Demands of Climate Justice

Climate Corps
Unsplash.com photo by Markus Spiske.

By Lindsey Sands

The writer is a junior high school student in Howard County.

“There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

I first came across this phrase on TikTok. Activists on the platform were using the phrase to relieve guilt in underprivileged communities around fast fashion and its effect on climate change. Some young people hear the message differently: that there is nothing you can do as an individual that will have an impact.

I have heard some of my friends echo this message.

Recently, as I contemplated buying a new hoodie, my friend and I argued about the value of individual consumer choices in the grand scheme of climate change. She argued that there was nothing we could do about climate change as individuals because there is no ethical consumption under capitalism: “Just do whatever you want because none of it makes a difference anyway.”

To an extent, she is right. Climate change requires us to do something more impactful than consumer habits like turning off the lights and thrifting. As adults struggle to deliver necessary changes in time to stop the crisis, some young people are turning to climate cynicism. This isn’t because they don’t care, though. We are scared about the threat that climate change poses and we know that there is so much work to do to fight the crisis.

Young people are often passionate about pursuing careers fighting the climate crisis over the next decade. However, many students worry that they won’t make a living wage unless they become doctors or lawyers.

While there has been an emphasis on pathways other than four-year college, many of these options don’t target effective climate action.

Adults need to give us the chance to do this work. Many of us are doing everything we can to convince those in charge to take action. I have been involved with environmental organizing for the past year and a half. Currently, I am a co-coordinator of Sunrise Movement’s Howard County hub. We have been calling for sweeping action to create millions of good jobs in green energy and climate justice projects — a Civilian Climate Corps.

There are currently two proposals in the Maryland General Assembly to create state-level Climate Corps programs in Maryland. It is vital that both pass this session. However, they should be amended to ensure that both programs offer good wages, benefits, and the right to organize, as well as funding projects in clean energy and climate justice.

One proposal is Senate President Bill Ferguson’s Maryland Corps bill. This legislation creates a Civilian Climate Corps program that provides a $15 minimum wage, health insurance, wraparound services and a $6,000 educational award for participants.

This is a great start, but it is important to also give workers the right to organize.

Another blind spot is that it only funds state park staffing shortages. While staffing parks is important, it should expand the scope to include renewable energy and climate justice projects as well.

The other proposal is the Climate Solutions Now Act, which among other necessary climate actions creates a Climate Justice Corps. This program creates jobs in green energy and environmental justice projects, focusing on black, brown and working-class communities that have been most impacted by pollution. However, it does not guarantee sufficient wages, benefits or the right to organize.

It is vital that a “Justice” Corps in urban areas not rely on underpaid workers to redress historic injustices. That would defeat the purpose.

I know firsthand how necessary it is to ensure that environmental jobs programs offer economic benefits for workers. Right now, I am part of Howard EcoWorks’ EcoAmbassador pilot program. This program is an internship through which students from Howard County were recruited to plan trash pickups and plan an educational event in relation to litter.

One of the most important details of the EcoAmbassador program is that students who participate are paid. I am so glad to have access to this opportunity to work and receive a stipend. However, it would not be enough to live off of if I had to pay other bills like rent and health insurance, which I will have to do after I graduate.

EcoWorks also has green jobs programs like Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY) and UpLift, which offer more substantial pay. These serve as local pilots that the state can look to as models to improve upon and scale.

Fighting the climate crisis is essential work. Truly just Climate Corps programs will recognize this by providing good wages, benefits and the right to organize.

The polluters destroying the planet don’t want us to have access to good green jobs because it competes with their labor market, and they profit from pollution and the harm it causes. It is up to adults who care to make sure we come of age in a world that values labor that protects our planet.