The news last month that U.S. President Joe Biden is launching an American Climate Corps is bringing new momentum to a similar effort in Canada, with one crucial difference—the British Columbia-based Climate Emergency Unit is calling for a national Youth Climate Corps where no young person who wants a good, green job will be turned away.
In the U.S., federal agencies will hire 20,000 youth in the first year of the program to “remove wildfire fuel in forests, install EV chargers in cities, retrofit thermostats in low-income homes and, it is hoped, move on to union jobs in the clean energy economy,” the Living on Earth radio show and Inside Climate News report. The Emergency Unit is looking for something a lot bigger: a two-year, government-funded placement “with training and good pay doing meaningful climate work” that would “transform our economy and climate” for the better.
So far, 93 youth have prepared mock application letters for federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Youth Minister Marci Ien, declaring themselves ready to join the corps.
Seth Klein, the Climate Emergency Unit’s founder and team lead, said a youth climate corps emerges as “the most emotionally resonant argument” with the post-secondary audiences he meets with. “I think there are tens of thousands of young people across the country who get that it’s an emergency, who’ve heard the call, who are ready to serve, and they’re, like, ‘where’s my goddamn invitation?’” he told The Energy Mix. “If and when our government issued that invitation, they would enlist.”
Klein added that a youth climate corps “hits multiple markers” in the framework he laid out in his 2020 book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, for recognizing and responding to the urgency of climate change.
“It’s part of spending what it takes to win. It’s a new institution to get the job done. It’s part of how we tell the truth, because it communicates to a whole generation that this is an emergency, we get it, and we’re inviting you to participate in this grand transition. And it’s part of embedding the commitment to leave no one behind.”
But so far, Klein said it’s seemed hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea that this isn’t just a new non-profit: It’s a roadmap for the federal government to mobilize a key part of the population against the climate emergency.
“We are offering this as an idea to government itself because the speed and scale requires state leadership,” he explained. Without a youth climate corps, “there is only one federal youth training and employment program that is genuinely barrier-free, particularly for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that is the military. All the other programs are short-term,” and programs like Katimavik require youth to volunteer.
“We think we can do better,” Klein said.
In contrast to the Biden administration program, with an initial cap of 20,000 spots for a population the size of the U.S., the Emergency Unit is calling for a climate corps that is demand-driven and starts out with a budget of C$1 billion from Ottawa, ideally matched by another $1 billion from provinces and territories. “The funded placements would just be determined by the number of young people who signed up,” Klein said. “You wouldn’t cap it.”
While it’s a fair chunk of funding, he added, the plan isn’t unprecedented. “Look at health care. We set budgets, but we don’t turn people away. And in B.C., they’ve just announced a billion-dollar increase in the deficit because of wildfire spending. They set a budget, but they don’t cease activities when they run out of money, because it’s an emergency,” just like climate change.
Asked to comment on the Youth Climate Corps proposal, a media spokesperson in Youth Minister Ien’s office turned to her counterpart at Environment and Climate Change Canada to respond. A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault replied with a list of youth programs funded under the federal Climate Action and Awareness Fund and cited three existing programs that “aim to support youth employment and provide opportunities for youth to be engaged in projects, including those that relate to climate action”: the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, the Science Horizons Youth Internship Program, and the volunteer-based Canada Service Corps.
[Disclosure: The first phase of the Green Resilience Project, in which Energy Mix Productions is a lead partner, received financial support from the Climate Action and Awareness Fund.]