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Maine is set to join a growing number of states in launching a service program aimed at mitigating and preparing for climate change.
The goal of the climate corps initiative is to both make a difference on climate issues and create career pathways for young people interested in conservation, renewable energy, or other related work. The effort will take on projects in areas including community resilience planning, energy education and outreach, home energy management and conservation, regenerative agriculture, and community solar.
“We designed it as ambitious because addressing the climate crisis is an ambitious task,” said state Rep. Morgan Rielly, who campaigned on the idea of a climate corps and supported the bill that created it. “You’ve got to address it in a systemic way.”
Despite the corps’ lofty goals, it will launch with modest backing. The legislature allocated $200,000 for the program, well short of the $1 million proposed in the original bill. Some $80,000 will fund staffing and administration and $120,000 will pay those who choose to serve.
“The requested amount was larger, but we will forge ahead with what we did receive,” said Kirsten Brewer, coordinator of the Maine Climate Corps.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill establishing the corps in May. The initiative is still in its early stages. Brewer was hired to coordinate the program under the umbrella of Volunteer Maine, the state’s service commission. She is now working on a request for proposals that will ask potential partner organizations to suggest projects that could be up and running by winter or spring.
The Maine Climate Corps will pay the people who work on these projects — often called “members” — a small allowance to help cover living expenses while they serve. The exact sum is yet to be determined, but by way of comparison, full-time AmeriCorps volunteers in Maine are given a minimum of $20,000 for a year of service.
The partner organizations will be responsible for training, materials, and the resources needed to complete the planned work. Partner groups may end up contributing more to member stipends or benefits, depending on the specific proposal, Brewer said. She will also be seeking additional funding sources, such as foundation grants or private donors, she said.
An idea with deep roots
The idea of the government creating a dedicated corps of civilians to tackle projects has deep roots in American history. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created several such groups, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, as part of his New Deal policies to help the country recover from the Great Depression. In 1961, the Peace Corps was launched to support developing countries and in 1993 AmeriCorps was founded to provide similar services domestically.
And national corps have been proven to offer significant value. One study found that every $1 of federal money invested in a service corps yields more than $17 in benefits.
President Joe Biden has spoken frequently about his plans to form a Civilian Climate Corps, to apply the same model to urgent issues of climate change mitigation and resilience, but his proposals have been stalled in Congress. At the same time, states and local governments have charged ahead. California started its climate action corps in 2020. Colorado launched its climate corps in early 2022. In Texas, Travis County commissioners voted in April 2021 to establish a civilian climate corps and, in Wisconsin, Dane County is in the process of launching a similar program.
“We’ve seen a lot more interest in these programs,” said Hannah Traverse, communications manager for The Corps Network, a national association of service corps. “In the last two years, we’ve seen a dozen bills related to creating some sort of civilian climate corps.”
Maine’s climate corps has its origins in the state’s climate action plan, Maine Won’t Wait, which was released at the end of 2020. Acting on recommendations in this plan, state lawmakers last year authorized a study looking at how to structure a successful program and what public and private organizations could partner on the effort.
Getting it right
There is widespread agreement that a climate corps program will need to make equity a key part of its approach, ensuring everyone can serve, regardless of their socioeconomic background. This focus is particularly important given the role corps service can play in helping members develop career skills and professional connections.
Many argue that standard compensation levels nationally — generally under $20,000 — are not high enough to make service an option for people without a financial cushion.
“We would like to see an increase in compensation for corps members to make it more of an option for everyone who’s interested in serving,” Traverse said.
Still, similar service programs in Maine offer evidence that a climate corps could be an effective effort. The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional association of municipal governments, has run a resilience corps in partnership with AmeriCorps for almost two years now, and the impact has been apparent, said program manager Julie Breul.
Corps members are able to devote attention to projects that busy towns on tight budgets might not have the expertise or money to tackle, she said. One fellow is leading the development of a climate action plan in the town of Falmouth, for example.
Part of the resilience corps’ success, Breul said, has been its use of what she calls a cohort model. In other programs, volunteers may feel isolated if they are the only member working with a certain organization. The resilience corps combats this effect by making sure members have opportunities to receive mentorship, and connect and communicate with each other, even when they are placed with different organizations. The program may even help them find housing together.
“Nobody is floating on their own,” Breul said. “There are dedicated people who want to support them and bring them into their work.”
Brewer is hopeful that the climate corps will be able to prove its effectiveness and find a way to continue past its pilot period.
“As long as there’s still work to do,” she said, “we hope this is an ongoing effort.”