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B.C., feds pushed to rally corps of youth workers in climate change fight

Poll shows widespread support for national Youth Climate Corps program as Victoria MP leads call
Youth Climate Corps BC, which trains young people and inserts them into climate-change-combatting jobs, hopes to start a program in Victoria. (Courtesy of Kari Medig/Youth Climate Corps BC)

Despite wanting a job that would help combat climate change, it wasn’t until Ben Simoni got his graduate degree that he was able to break into the budding industry.

The requirement of multiple degrees plus internships on top of that is what he considers an unreasonable path for those who want to make a living by helping the environment.

Simoni is the executive director of Youth Climate Corps BC, which pays a living wage to young people as it gives them training and inserts them into six-month job contracts in fields like clean-energy retrofitting, ecosystem restoration or responding to climate disasters.

The group has been deploying 17 to 30-year-olds into B.C.’s climate change-fighting ventures since 2020 and in November pitched Victoria council on starting a Capital Region program. Despite limited funding, it’s already injected 80 youth into jobs where they’ve completed over 7,000 days of climate action work.

Graduates of the program now hold full-time jobs across a range of sustainable industries, which Simoni said demonstrates the corps’ aim to put a generation of climate-affected youth in the driver’s seat.

“When we think about key stakeholders in the future of our communities, youth are right up there and right now they’re not necessarily being treated that way,” Simoni said.

“If we want to be resilient to climate catastrophes, we have to build up the leadership in our communities and that’s a big part of what this program is about.”

The non-profit’s push for funding support comes as governments want masses of Canadians to retrofit their homes with emissions-reducing tools like heat pumps. Simoni said a project like that takes months in Nelson, where he’s based, due to a shortage of those who can do the installation.

It highlights the important environmental initiatives governments are committing to, Simoni said, but also how they’re falling short in growing a workforce of youth that will enable the green economy. Preparing the next generation with green job skills is vital for the economy amid a transition away from fossil fuels, he added.

Last month, the International Energy Agency said global demand for oil, coal and natural gas will peak this decade, coinciding with what the watchdog called a “phenomenal rise in clean energy.”

Youth Climate Corps BC members doing deconstruction work in Vancouver. (Courtesy of Sam Kutyauripo/Youth Climate Corps BC)

Victoria hasn’t committed to supporting a local program but Simoni said early talks with city staff have been positive. Possible jobs in the capital could include preparing the city for worsening climate events and helping homeowners switch off heating oil – an expensive and higher-emitting option.

Youth Climate Corps’ focus on tangible, on-the-ground solutions can also help inspire a younger generation that feels helpless right now, the executive director said.

“Young people are going to be disproportionately affected by climate change throughout their lives, a lot of them suffer from eco-anxiety,” he said.

He points to a study in the major medical journal, The Lancet, that found children and young people – who have little power to elicit change – are vulnerable to anxiety as they face climate change harming their health and future.

The study surveyed 10,000 global youth aged 16 to 25 and 60 per cent said they’re “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. That same proportion holds the view that governments are not protecting young people, the planet and future generations, and the majority think governments are both failing and betraying youth.

“Young people across our country are feeling this, they’re feeling the anxiety that comes with living in a time of climate emergency,” Victoria MP Laurel Collins said during a Dec. 5 news conference, where she called on Ottawa to fund a Canada-wide Youth Climate Corps.

The Island lawmaker bolstered her call with an Abacus Data poll from November that found a majority of Canadians across the political spectrum support creating a national program. The poll also found about 1.3 million people aged 18 to 35 would “definitely” enroll and 65 per cent from that age group would consider joining.

“This is a program that can give them hope, it can give them a path forward to engage, but it is also a tangible way for us to reduce our emissions, to make our communities more resilient and to deal with the aftermath of devastating climate events,” Collins said.

Youth Climate Corps BC, which trains young people and inserts them into climate-change-combatting jobs like retrofitting, hopes to start a program in Victoria. (Courtesy of Kari Medig/Youth Climate Corps BC)

The demand for youth climate employment is strong in B.C. as Simoni said their postings for five positions consistently get flooded with over 30 applicants.

“There doesn’t seem to be much of a shortage of young people that want to work in climate and work on things that benefit their communities,” he said.

Simoni hopes they can help shift the narrative around climate change to focus on the opportunity of building the economy and creating jobs.

The B.C. corps partners with local governments, environmental organizations and Indigenous groups to have the youth work in roles that are unique to each community’s needs.

In Kamloops, the youth are advising homeowners on programs available to fire-smart their homes or equip the dwellings to better handle extreme heat. Others in Vancouver are restoring wetlands and helping kids learn how to safely ride bikes.

The program also offers variety as training ranges from skilled trades work on how to do emission-reducing retrofit installs, to learning about traditional ecological knowledge from the Ma’amtagila People on North Vancouver Island.

Working in climate empowers youth because they want jobs that align with their values, Simoni said. Their members also enjoy getting to give back to their hometowns.

“They’ve been able to stay in their rural communities and be connected with jobs that are really meaningful to them and their communities.”

Youth Climate Corps BC members in Vancouver partnering with Ducks Unlimited to do a wetland conservation technique that involves planting willow branches. (Courtesy of Sam Kutyauripo/Youth Climate Corps BC)

READ: Climate at the point of no return for 5 key ecosystems: scientists