America’s Climate Workforce Suits Up

America’s Climate Workforce Suits Up

Photograph by Louis de Belle / Connected Archives


words by yessenia funes

A new bill has the potential to revolutionize the workforce. The Frontline explores what it could mean for disaster response and recovery.

While the pandemic spurred the nation’s highest unemployment rate in 2020, it also lit a fire in workers. No longer would they idly accept what an employer offered: low wages without benefits. No longer would they stay in jobs that left them tired and unfulfilled. Instead, workers are in search of something more—more money, more meaning, and more magic.


In November 2021, a record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs. We’ve come to call this phenomenon the Great Resignation. The moment to transform the U.S. workforce has arrived.


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re ready for the green jobs of the future. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. In March, I wrote about the newly launched Resilience Corps in New Orleans, an employment program that hired service workers who lost work due to the pandemic as hurricane and COVID-19 response leaders. The Corps has come a long way. In fact, it’s been so successful that new legislation was introduced Tuesday to fund more programs like it across the country. The Climate Resilience Workforce Act may have the potential to change everything.

Photograph Courtesy of Resilience Force and NOLA Resilience Corps

In New Orleans, a new group of workers is coming together to respond to disasters of all kinds. Their first real test came when Hurricane Ida hit the city on August 29, 2021. The category 4 monster left more than 1 million people without power across the South. Residents of New Orleans, however, had a new ally on their side: the Resilience Corps.


Made up of community members, the Resilience Corps was designed to prevent and respond to disaster. It’s a new program the city of New Orleans launched in 2020 in partnership with Resilience Force, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the disaster response workforce. Though many workers—former employees of hotels or restaurants that were forced to lay off employees during the height of the pandemic—were impacted by the hurricane themselves, they sprung into action to help those who were left even more devastated than themselves, explained LaTanja Silvester, the Louisiana director of Resilience Force who has managed and led the development of the program. The Resilience Corps was able to feed more than 11,000 people over 10 days. The community health workers also conducted house visits to check on the vulnerable, as well as delivered food, medicine, and supplies (like battery-powered fans) to those who needed it. 


“All the training that we did leading up to hurricane season really prepared the Resilience Corps for this moment,” she said. “We made certain that the people who were most vulnerable were taken care of and not forgotten about.” 


Now, the program has the potential to serve as a model for others like it across the U.S. On Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state introduced the Climate Resilience Workforce Act. The bill has a long way to go before it may become law, but it includes some pretty significant changes to how workers in the so-called “climate resilience” sector are treated. The bill highlights three employment sectors: workers focused climate change mitigation, climate change preparation and adaptation, and disaster preparedness and recovery. 


The bill has the potential to create millions of competitive jobs by funding grants to cities, counties, states, tribal governments, and community-based groups looking to build an equitable workforce. Those hoping for grant dollars must, however, welcome a diverse set of workers. That includes undocumented and formerly incarcerated people. The bill places an emphasis on training programs to help develop a new set of workers who know how to respond to the climate crisis. The idea is to create more teams like the Resilience Corps in New Orleans—all of which specialize in meeting the needs of their communities.


“The innovative Climate Resilience Workforce Act responds to the worsening climate crisis at the scale necessary by investing in a skilled workforce that is capable of not only responding to but preparing for the destructive impacts of climate change,” said Congresswoman Jayapal in a statement. “As we create millions of good-paying, union jobs and center the very communities who are disproportionately impacted, we are finally building back better, greener, and stronger.”


Exciting, right? And that doesn’t even cover everything. The bill would go on to establish a few new offices, including an Office of Climate Resilience within the White House and a Center for the Climate Resilience Workforce. One of the center’s first tasks should the bill pass would be defining what sectors the law covers. And that’s where things grow murky.

“The workforce that we’re talking about already exists, but it’s being paid very little, it’s too small, and it’s hanging by a thread.”


The language around what sectors and occupations would be included is far-reaching and encompassing, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, said disasterologist Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. That’s because many of the industries potentially affected by this bill—like agriculture, transportation, and care—also include jobs that aren’t directly relevant to the climate crisis but are relevant to disasters more broadly, such as earthquakes or even pandemics. She prefers to see a more holistic treatment to managing emergencies that doesn’t silo climate change. 


“There is a need for more people to be doing disaster work, but that is also something that crosses so many areas of life, that it’s difficult to talk about it as one cohesive workforce,” Montano said.


Still, Montano does see the legislation as a step forward—but she has more questions around the specifics of it all. She was encouraged to see the bill invest further in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has cadres of employees focused on specific response or recovery efforts. The bill proposes to expand this FEMA workforce to include more on-the-ground duties relating to child and elder care services, as well as reconstruction. The bill goes even further to establish up to 15,000 new positions for the federal program. These could be welcome changes given FEMA’s current challenges, which includes staff shortages.


The timing of the bill’s introduction is critical, said Saket Soni, the executive director of Resilience Force who worked closely with Jayapal’s office to develop the bill. The U.S. is seeing a nonstop onslaught of disaster: over the last five years, the country has seen an average of 17 billion-dollar weather events a year. Mayors and community leaders need to find the dollars to prepare for the realities of a hotter world. This bill could help provide those resources so that the public and nonprofit sectors can offer vulnerable workers more promising employment opportunities than the private subcontractors that often take advantage of them.


“The workforce that we’re talking about already exists, but it’s being paid very little, it’s too small, and it’s hanging by a thread,” Soni said. “In part, the bill delivers labor rights and equity to people already doing the work—and then, on top of that, adds millions of dollars to hire more people.” 


People are definitely looking for new jobs these days. And not just any old job; they want jobs that bring them joy all the while helping them provide for their family. The moment feels right. Unfortunately, the Build Back Better Act remains stalled in the Senate, so this bill currently functions as a standalone piece of legislation. While it can do plenty on its own if passed, the Climate Resilience Workforce Act would be strongest as one piece of a greater strategy to tackle the climate crisis head on. 


After all, workers aren’t the only ones who need a hand. So do the companies hiring them. What they need, however, are some rules and regulations to incentivize emissions cuts. Otherwise, there will never be enough workers to clean up the mess they’ve made.

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