Three trucks, two of them carrying enrollees from the Civilian Conservation Corps as they get ready to leave their camp and conclude their term of service. Trees and tents are visible behind the trucks: the camp is in a forest. Some men look on.

Green New Deal redux: reflecting on the American Climate Corps

This week, in the United States of America, the Biden-Harris administration has launched the American Climate Corps. Formally an interagency initiative of the US Federal government, the ACC has the stated purpose of recruiting thousands of young people, and putting them to work on federal programs aimed at climate change prevention. The idea is to build up a workforce that has the skills necessary to running a successful low-carbon economy going forward.

There are several areas of intervention, from clean energy to community resilience. I recommend reading the full list of the tasks the ACC sets for itself (link – it works as I write this, but the website is in beta and might change by the time you read it. I also took a screenshot): it is very inspiring. For example, look at the “urban areas” category:

What you will do

  • Advance environmental justice to ensure all Americans can live in healthy, thriving communities
  • Address extreme heat by planting trees and deploying strategies to expand cool communities
  • Assist neighbors in public housing communities by educating residents on sustainability and energy efficiency.

There is an unmistakable Green New Deal flavour here. The narrative is not technocratic, but includes an explicit element of social justice. And it’s not just the narrative: as a policy instrument, the ACC is strongly Keynesian, even social-democratic in the Northern European sense. It is Keynesian because it seeks to address climate change mitigation not by encouraging technical progress, but by throwing at the problem tens of thousands of people that use existing technology. And it is social-democratic, because these jobs are not only meaningful in scope, but decent employment, offering training, support for education, healthcare, childcare, transportation, housing, and fast-tracking into federal employment. Not coincidentally, the ACR explicitly claims the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

Reading through the job descriptions of the positions opened in the first cohort of the ACC, one finds a sense of urgency and mobilization towards a collective goal. It’s worth reading a few in their entirety (they are very short). For example, consider the position of AmeriCorps NCCC Team Leader based in Sacramento, California:

Project summary

This position will help to preserve and enhance a community’s natural resources by working on trail development and maintenance, planting trees, removing invasive plant species, cleaning up rivers, streams, and beaches, performing water quality assessments, and leading environmental education workshops and camps for youth.

Opportunity description

Leaders will lead a team through direct, hands-on service in the areas of natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and urban and rural development. Your team could be doing anything from building a house to running a youth summer program, so adaptability is key! As a Team Leader, you will be crucial to your team’s success. You’ll be responsible for directing, motivating, and mentoring, a diverse team of young people. There are as many as 30 openings for this position.


  • Education benefit
  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Child care
  • Relocation expenses

Requirements and qualifications

Requirements: Must be a US Citizen or a Lawful Permanent Resident of the US. Must have a valid driver’s license or plan to have one by the time you start. Must pass an initial drug screening test upon arrival to the program.

Preferred qualifications: No experience required.

There is a refreshing absence of HR overhead, multiple interviews and tests and so on. The purpose is clear and collective. People will need to adapt, so the main ingredients to succeed are will, ingenuity and teamwork. There are 30 positions, so no cutthroat competition. No particular credentials required. It feels like the army: it accepts almost anyone, and then matches people with what needs to be done. There is plenty of work to be done, so labour demand is no issue. Even knowledge-intensive positions require little more than motivation, as in the case of the 75 Innovator Fellows with the Department of Energy:

Requirements: College degree (Bachelor’s, masters, doctoral). Interest in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, and/or sustainable transportation technology and policy, electric grid resilience and modernization, and Tribal energy deployment.

Preferred qualifications: No experience required but familiarity with energy issues, policies, and programs a plus. Successful fellows are highly motivated and take initiative.

The ACC has 20,000 positions in the pipeline. But its ambitions are larger: the administration seeks 8 billion dollars to recruit 50,000 more people a year until 2031. This would mean that, by the end of 2031, over 350,000 people will have served in the Corps. For a comparison, about 3 million people served in Roosevelt’s CCC.

Maybe I am a hopeless romantic; certainly I am not immune to occasionally seeing what I want to see. But, from where I’m standing, the ACC has the potential to be the flagship Green New Deal policy. It delivers climate action, workforce upskilling, workers’ rights and Keynesian benefits, all at the same time. It has the scale and the lineage. If the CCC’s experience is anything to go by, it will lift the morale of those participating in it, and will be hugely popular. I can only wish for its success, and its replication at scale everywhere in the world. Cory Doctorow, in his novel The Lost Cause, imagines something very similar, but under the aegis of the United Nations ("Blue Helmets). In my (admittedly biased) opinion, that would be an even better idea, and if I could join a United Nations Climate Corps I would do it in a flash.

Difficult conversations: climate and economic growth in the Global South

I am fascinated by the current resurgence of political economy, so much so that I started identifying as a post-growth economist. By wearing this badge, I (and others) mean to say that growth can not be a goal of economic policy. Neither good nor bad in itself, growth should be assessed relatively to how it affects humans and the planet we inhabit. Once you factor in the theoretical and empirical link between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases, it becomes clear to me that generalized growth is incompatible with preserving the conditions humanity enjoyed during the holocene, so really bad. In the Global North. In the Global South, it’s an entirely different story.

This is where Ken Opalo comes in. Opalo is a political scientist based in the United States of America. Originally from Nigeria, his academic interests center on the African continent; he runs a very informative blog on African economies and societies. In a recent post, he takes on degrowth and post-growth types like myself. He starts by pointing out that energy poverty is a bad thing, as we all agree. As climate change progresses, it gets even worse, because (energy-) poor people have no shield to defend them against its effects. This means that not only they are worse affected in the static sense of suffering more immediate damage, but also that this damage slows, blocks, or reverses developmental dynamics. His example; schools in South Sudan were recently ordered by the government to close because extreme heat was making classroom learning impossible. The time not spent in education makes it harder for the South Sudanese workforce to achieve badly needed productivity gains. Another example: energy poor people burn firewood to cook, and that is very bad, both for deforestation and for their own health. Sick people have low productivity, so again, energy poverty begets more poverty.

Opalo is adamant: low-income countries simply must grow. Without growth, there can be no transition.

These countries need (to) grow as fast as possible so they can have cash for infrastructure that can withstand flooding and extreme temperatures; agricultural technologies and infrastructure that are resilient to climate change; and yes, investments in green technologies for the future.

He then goes on to point out that the current policy discourse on climate is used to pressurize the governments of low-income African nations into policies that perpetuate energy poverty. Climate agendas in the region revolve around carbon sinks and conserving biodiversity, with no mention of the need to eliminate energy poverty. Why would they accept something like this? Because of carbon credits. High-income countries, according to Opalo, would like to use low-income ones as “reserves”, places where they can buy the carbon credits to continue running their (our) industries and trasport.

This is very uncomfortable. From where Opalo stands, climate policy is reminescent of the Washington Consensus of the 1990s: policy prescriptions that will always hurt the poorest the most, cloaked in intellectual respectability. Degrowth economics has replaced the Chicago School; and climate activists have joined the bankers in standing behind these institutions. But the violence is the same.

The reality is more nuanced. Degrowth academics have described a direction of travel where high-income countries degrow aggressively to preserve the planet, whereas low-income ones grow to satisfy human needs. But degrowth academics do not make policy, and Opalo has a solid point when he fears that their ideas, once they reach deployment, will have been transformed to make them politically viable. That generally means that they do not attack frontally powerful interests. The Global North bribing via carbon markets the Global South to keep it energy-poor is, unfortunately, a plausible outcome.

But Opalo’s contribution has also a major problem, which is this claim:

[…] development gives rise to less energy-intensive sectors, efficient use of energy, and the ability to invest in cleaner energy (including renewables).

This is not factually wrong, but we now know it is not enough. Developed economies have reduced their domestic emissions by the simple expedient of exporting them, together with large swaths of the supply chains behind our hi-tech consumption. Emissions associated to one dollar of domestic consumption has, in general, not declined. Additionally, and critically, absolute emissions have continued to increase, more or less linearly with GDP. This point was made very forcefully by Timothée Parrique at the Beyond Growth conference in 2023 (I strongly recommed watching the 10-minutes video of his intervention). In a nutshell, Parrique says that green growth must satsfy five requirements:

  1. Absolute decoupling between environmental pressures and economic output.
  2. That needs to work across all environmental pressure: not only carbon, but materials extraction, biodiversity loss, air pollution and so on.
  3. And needs to be done wherever these emissions occur, not just at home but wherever economic activities related to growth at home occur.
  4. And needs to be done at a pace which is sufficiently fast to avoid ecological collapse.
  5. And needs to be maintained over time.

Parrique’s conclusion:

This type of green growth has not been achieved anywhere on Earth, and I have not seem convincing evidence showing that it could.

For a more academic reading, try this paper by Jefim Vogel and Jason Hickel.

So, Opalo points to a real problem: climate “degrowthist” agendas could very well turn out extremely unjust for people in the Global South, despite the best intention of degrowth economists. But green growth is not a credible solution to that problem. The debate on the role of economic growth in environmental collapse points to a difficult conversation ahead about what we prioritize provisioning (for example lifting the Global South out of energy poverty) and what we do not prioritize or actively discourage (for example hyperconsumption of the global élites, private jets etc.). It’s an uncomfortable and divisive conversation, and things could get ugly. But have it we must. Pretending we can be saved by what climate activist Greta Thunberg calls “the fairy tales endless economic (green) growth” will not help anyone.

Stretching the Overton window: the need for (more) radical reform in the language of leading institutions

Large, venerable institutions like the United Nations or the European Union prefer to use understated language. When discussing possible reform, they tend to deploy expressions like “adjustment” or “course correction”. They are incrementalists, not firebrands.

This is even more true when economic reforms are concerned. As long as I have been intellectually active, economics has been an intellectually and politically conservative discipline. The mainstream economists’ idea of policy was the identification and correction of market failures. Well-functioning markets automatically deliver the best possible outcome for all.

In the past few years, though, I have started to see increasingly strong language – already widely used in the corridors, mind you – making it into high-profile official documents. I choose to interpret this as a harbinger of hope: as multiple crises bring our societies under increasing strain, policy makers realize that the old ways of thinking are just not going to cut it. The good old Overton window has served our institutions well, helping to guarantee stability. But now stability has become impossible; business as usual is setting the world on fire, quite literally. The Overton window needs to be blown wide open.

And so the language is changing: the aforementioned large, venerable institutions are now calling for a lot more radicality. In this short post I want to note the expression I have noticed. If you know of any more, please let me know, it may help people advocating for bolder thinking, as it is already helping me. Brace for interesting times.

What institutions are calling for (in rough chronological order)

  1. Green New Deal (US Democratic Party).
  2. Green transition (EU)
  3. Just transitions (everybody, from the EU to South Africa
  4. Systems transformation (UNDP, 2022-2025 Strategic plan)
  5. Transformative shifts (UNEP, strategic plan 2022-2025)
  6. Systemic change (IPCC, Assessment Report 6, Summary for Policymakers)
  7. Structural transformation (OECD, but I seem to have lost the reference. Can anyone help me?
  8. Extraordinary turnarounds (Club of Rome, Earth4All report