The climate resilience workforce should include architects

A Just Transition

The climate resilience workforce should include architects

The Architecture Lobby recommends architectural workers be classified as climate resilience workers under the new legislation. (Michael Watson)

On September 27, for the second consecutive Congressional session, Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-7) introduced the Climate Resilience Workforce Act (H.R. 5760), or CRWA, a unique piece of legislation that lays the groundwork for a “Just Transition”—the societal shift necessary to address climate change and also redress social inequities. Through a federally-backed plan linking labor and climate resilience, the CRWA establishes a new climate resilience workforce. This can include disaster recovery workers and clean-up crews to provide immediate relief for communities in the aftermath of extreme weather events, and workers such as weatherization contractors and social workers whose roles help build resilience even before disaster strikes. An integral feature of the act is that it reduces barriers to employment for immigrants and formerly incarcerated individuals, helping them receive training, good union jobs, and labor protections complementary to the PRO Act (H.R. 20 / S.567).

If architectural workers were to be classified as climate resilience workers under the CRWA, this would open new avenues for architectural labor to address climate, reduce the dependence of our livelihoods on private development, and contribute to a more equitable built environment. This could take the form of public agencies employing architects, like the New Deal’s Public Works Administration or the Tennessee Valley Authority. It could support more equitable forms of architectural practice, prioritizing nonprofit, cooperatively owned, and unionized private sector offices. The Architecture Lobby has endorsed this legislation and we, the Lobby’s Green New Deal Working Group, are calling on the building trades and design professionals to organize and support its passage and implementation. Taken together, the CRWA’s objectives are foundational to the growing call for a just transition for the building sector.

The need to design more resilient cities and communities requires contributions from architects. Yet profit-oriented relations grounded in a fossil fuel–based economy still undergird most of the building sector’s actions, failing to confront its complicity in creating and perpetuating the climate crisis.

As a result, opportunities for architects to address resilience (both in the long and short term) are limited. This is the case irrespective of whether we are employed by large corporate conglomerates, boutique design offices, or mid-sized regional firms. No matter the size or configuration of the office, architectural workers typically have little ability to work on projects that address resilience without being beholden to the concerns of capital first and foremost. The building sector is driven, nearly exclusively, by short-term economic incentives. For individual architectural workers and even firm owners, the current economy of the building sector prohibits us from achieving the level of resilience we need to address the immediate and dire impacts of extreme weather events. Another model for resilient design and planning of the built environment is necessary.

Wildfire smoke turned the sky an orange hue in New York City. (Deo Deiparine)

It’s important to note that the CRWA would also establish an Office of Climate Resilience within the White House and several task forces to coordinate climate action across federal agencies, state and tribal governments, and community organizations. This will be part of a national climate resilience action plan, developed from the bottom up with input from workers and frontline communities. Working across public agencies and various scales of government, it would identify effective climate resilience strategies with particular attention to the effects on communities most at risk of climate change.

These plans must work within overlapping regulations across various scales of government, adapt them to the unique characteristics of each site, solicit and respect community input, and coordinate with construction labor to get things done—all while being mindful of project budgets and timelines. Meeting such requirements should be a familiar job description for architects, as it’s what most of us do each day.

Since January of 2021, the Biden administration has taken several executive actions to further climate resilience and adaptation planning. EO 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, outlines an array of policy directives intended to center the climate crisis and address the need for a whole government approach. The administration also issued a series of agency-level Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plans developed to foreground an internal commitment to addressing the impacts of climate change. However, these actions were focused on the necessary resilience to be achieved, not building the workforce to make it possible.

Without committing the resources to build a workforce, resilience plans risk becoming empty promises. Since the CRWA’s first introduction during the 117th U.S. Congress, a wider set of policymakers are beginning to acknowledge this reality. The current CRWA has more co-sponsors than its previous incarnation and we’ve also seen some additional action by the executive branch. As the CRWA was reintroduced, the Biden administration created the American Climate Corps, an interagency partnership intended to mobilize 20,000 Americans in its first year to work in clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience. These jobs will focus on communities most directly affected by the climate crisis.

Flooding in a New York City subway station (Anastasia Yee)

While these executive directives provide commendable and necessary federal action, we need legislation that goes further. Executive actions such as these are limited in scope and aren’t durable, always at risk of being overturned by subsequent administrations. In contrast, the CRWA reflects a binding legislative commitment to building resilience over the long term. Moreover, the CRWA centers the concerns of labor, ensuring that “green jobs” are good jobs. These jobs are not hypothetical in some far-off future; they already exist and need support now. Passage of the CRWA would uplift groups like Resilience Force who are already doing essential disaster recovery work.

Many architects feel conflicted between their commitment to climate goals and the industry’s ongoing complicity with a fossil fuel-based economy. Without the passage and support of legislation like the CRWA, architects will continue to have to choose between earning a livelihood grounded in fossil capital or practicing in alignment with our values. When we as architects come together to support legislation linking the climate justice and labor movements, contributing to a just transition for all workers, we begin to orient our livelihood toward supporting a socially and environmentally regenerative world.

The Architecture Lobby (TAL) is a grassroots organization of architectural workers that advocates for just labor practices and an equitable built environment. This article was written by members Joshua Barnett, Adare Brown, Jack Callahan, Ryan Ludwig, Caitlin Watson, and Martin Weiner.