May 30, 2024

In the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Congress warned that millions of Americans “walked the streets” unemployed, posing a threat to the nation’s stability, even though they would “infinitely prefer to work.” This is part of the reason why he the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that would hire men to conserve forests, prevent soil erosion, and control floods. “More important than the material gains, however, will be the moral and spiritual value of such work,” Roosevelt said.

President Joe Biden referred to that rule last month when he announced the launch of the American Climate Corps, a government jobs program inspired by Roosevelt’s that tackles the environmental problems of the 21st century. In addition to the obvious benefits of restoring wetlands and installing solar panels, the Climate Corps is intended to pave a path to green careers for those who sign up. Another benefit of joining, though less discussed, is that it can help alleviate widespread climate anxiety by channeling young people’s concerns into concrete, practical work. More than half of Americans are anxious, to some extent, about how climate change affects their mental health. There are only approx 250 jobs currently in the climate corps, but the White House expects to employ 20,000 people over the program’s first year.

While the vast majority of 18- to 28-year-olds in the United States say they are concerned about climate change, two-thirds of them are unsure what they can do to make a difference, according to the think tank’s poll Data for progress in 2022. The combination is ripe for “climate anxiety,” a colloquial term for the feelings of sadness, fear, and distress that are not so much a clinical diagnosis as a logical response to life through the warmest period on earth in 125,000 years.

According to common wisdom, the best way to treat existential dread about global warming is to “take action.” But not all types of climate action are equal. Proponents of the American Climate Corps suggest the program offers something more substantial than throwing meat or taking a bike ride — it’s a chance to spend the day working on climate change or environmental justice issues as part of a larger cause. “There’s something about, ‘Here’s a clear job with a clear timeline and a clear local goal. I can, like, put my hands in the ground,'” said Kidus Girma, campaign director of the Sunrise Movement. a youth-led climate organisation, said. who fought to make the climate corps happen.

In small doses can anxiety urge people to do something, but in large doses it can be incapacitating. The structure of the American Climate Corps can be helpful for young people who are overwhelmed by the scale of a global problem and aren’t sure where to start, said McKenna Parnes, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Washington. said.

Taking action as part of a group, instead of doing it alone, can relieves the distress considerably associated with climate change, according to a study Parnes co-authored in 2022. Climate corps members don’t necessarily have to work with people all day to get those benefits. “Even if it’s people who are doing individual jobs but are part of the larger collective, just by the nature of being part of the climate corps, there’s already that collective piece,” she said.

Photo of protesters in front of the White House with signs reading 'invest in good work' and 'pass a brave citizen climate corps'
Climate activists protest outside the White House in June 2021, calling for the Civilian Climate Corps.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Jennifer Rasmussen, a registered nurse and a teaching fellow at the Planetary Health Alliance, a global network of organizations addressing the health effects of environmental change, said that social support networks are key to improving mental health, especially with the rise of loneliness among young people. Being a member of the corps can also provide a sense of purpose and fulfilment, as well as helping people build confidence by learning new skills – all of which tend to increase people’s psychological resilience and well-being. she said.

Roosevelt could have been ahead of his time when he wished the initial Civilian Conservation Corps members a “pleasant, wholesome and constructively useful sojourn in the woods.” Recent research points to that feeling a connection with nature is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, another promising sign for American Climate Corps members who end up tending to forests, streams or community gardens.

Climate anxiety comes in many forms: It can stem from a disaster, such as living through a flood, hurricane or smoke-filled wildfire season. It can also take the form of some sort of existential fear about the future, even if you haven’t experienced a disaster yourself. A survey in 2021 found that climate anxiety was common in 10 countries across four continents, with 45 percent of young people saying that concern about the environment affects their daily lives and ability to function.

That report suggested that this emotional distress stems from governments’ failure to respond to the problem. That’s the case for Matt Ellis-Ramirez, a coordinator at Sunrise Movement Miami who recently graduated from the University of Miami and is considering joining the American Climate Corps. In Florida, for example, a bill that would remove most mentions of climate change from state laws sits on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, and last month DeSantis signed legislation that prohibit local rules from protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat.

“I think that’s where my anxiety comes from — that if we’re not actually able to shift our political system, we might just see Miami become unlivable,” Ellis-Ramirez said.

Ellis-Ramirez is very excited to apply for hands-on jobs in the US Climate Corps, such as restoration efforts in the Everglades or planting trees in neighborhoods that lack them. Girma said if he were looking for a job in the corps, he would like to work on coastal restoration. “But I don’t think I would confidently say that coastal recovery is the thing for people who have anxiety,” he said. “I think it’s broadly like, ‘Can I see a clear, measurable impact from my work day to day?'”

Saul Levin, the legislative and political director at the Green New Deal Network, says there’s something empowering about knowing that people around you are working to address climate change and make communities safer. “It’s really not just the thousands and thousands of people who through the [American Climate Corps] which I think could have improved their mental health, but also their acquaintances, families, neighbors, who will just as well benefit from knowing that people are actually being hired to work on this.”

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