Climate Corps Seeks to Make Impact in Connecticut’s Communities

A service learning course enlists students to help the state's communities respond and adapt to climate change through the UConn Climate Corps. (Chet Arnold/UConn Photo)
A service learning course enlists students to help the state's communities respond and adapt to climate change through the UConn Climate Corps. (Chet Arnold/UConn Photo)

When President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal, he saw it not only as a way to tap into a workforce eager to work, but as an opportunity to preserve open spaces. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a success, and the results of many of those projects are still in use nearly a century later.

Today, UConn is applying a similar concept, enlisting students to help Connecticut communities respond and adapt to climate change through the UConn Climate Corps.

The Climate Corps is part of a class offering called Climate Resilience and Adaptation: Municipal Policy and Planning. This fall brings the second iteration of the course, team-taught by associate extension educator Juliana Barrett and land use educator Bruce Hyde. The fall portion is a classroom-based course where students learn how to perform vulnerability assessments and to navigate the process by which policy decisions are made at the local, or town, level. The spring semester follows with in-the-field training and service learning, to give students the tools and opportunities to help communities become more resilient against climate change.

“Rather than focusing on the science behind climate change,” Barrett says, “this course is about local policy responses.”

Planning and policy processes can be fraught with challenges. Local responses to conservation proposals can be politically driven and of course financially driven, as many projects can be costly. There may be resistance by some community members. Navigating these nuances and being creative in finding real, actionable solutions is an important and fascinating component of this line of work, and a valuable skill set students learn in the course, says Barrett.

“When you start to look at the whole situation, you start to find doable pieces,” she says.

The first step the students took to find those doable pieces was to identify projects that would not be costly to the communities they started working with.

“We positioned the students to work with towns that did not receive state grants that were previously available to underwrite local vulnerability assessments,” says Barrett.

When you start to look at the whole situation, you start to find doable pieces. — Juliana Barrett

Projects from the first year of the Climate Corps included performing vulnerability assessments, evaluating climate adaptation options, and developing strategies for community outreach, to name just a few.

In terms of areas of the state benefiting from the Climate Corps efforts so far, Barrett says coastal towns are the focus for the service learning for the most part, as they are feeling the brunt of the changes already. Intense storms such as Irene and Sandy served as wake-up calls to coastal communities, who have since begun to increase efforts in resilience planning, through programs such as FEMA’s community rating system.

“Communities have asked students to work with them in applying to the Community Rating System,  a points-based system instituted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that makes them eligible for federal assistance,” says Barrett. The process can seem daunting to town leaders, however, and that is where the students are able to step in and help.

To earn points, Barrett says, communities must assess their risks and then put into practice measures to educate the community and measures to reduce potential damage to flood-prone, insurable areas. Homeowners may be required to have flood insurance, for instance, as mortgages that are federally regulated must have flood insurance. Additionally, homeowners and renters insurance policies do not typically cover flood damage. When towns are enrolled in the community rating system, there is a chance they can decrease flood insurance costs for members of the community.

One shoreline town asked Climate Corps for help in prioritizing different resilience actions that could be taken, in order to tackle the least expensive measures first. Students performed flood analyses, following different sea-level rise scenarios, and created a prioritization scheme, says Barrett. They also made a brochure about the measures to use for community outreach and as a result, the town plans to meet again because they would like to continue working with the Climate Corps.

This is one example of a great result in a line of work that can be discouraging at times. But Barrett says the students keep her energized.

“We are bombarded by so many issues, such as climate change, it’s easy to be overwhelmed,” she says. “The students have such great ideas and so much energy, they can’t wait to get to work. It’s rejuvenating.”

Just as the Civilian Conservation Corps has had a lasting legacy, the UConn Climate Corps is helping to implement real-world, lasting solutions to the communities enlisting their assistance.

“The towns are so grateful for the students’ help,” says Barrett.

At the individual level, Barrett suggests taking the same approach of looking for doable pieces. Start to assess what can be done now and what simple steps can be taken. From actions such as installing a rain barrel to reduce the amount of water we use, to building a rain garden (using the UConn smartphone app!), to simply checking FEMA flood maps before buying a property, we can all do something now to become more resilient to climate change.

The corps model is being applied in other areas, giving UConn students additional service-learning opportunities such as the UConn Brownfields Corps, and there are plans for the creation of a Stormwater Corps.

If your community would like to work with the UConn Climate Corps, visit the Municipal Assistance Program page. For more information on planning and development across the state, read how you can get involved in preserving green spaces across the state.