09/24/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

The Next Move on Climate Change -- Lessons from the First Earth Day

TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images

When I ponder the next big push for action on climate change, I think back to the late summer of 1969, just before Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson vowed to organize a nationwide environmental teach-in.

At the time, the United States did not really have an environmental movement. Grassroots activism was diffuse and often unheralded. Polls showed that most Americans were concerned about pollution, but the issue was not a priority. The federal government had not yet acted boldly to clean up the nation's air and water.

Nelson's resolve changed everything. His teach-in became the first Earth Day -- the biggest demonstration in U.S. history. Inspired by Nelson's call to action, local organizers planned more than 12,000 Earth Day events that drew millions of people. Politicians took notice: Earth Day 1970 prompted a landmark series of government actions, from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to the passage of the Clean Air Act. Earth Day also built a new eco-infrastructure outside of government. Newspapers created eco beats, schools and colleges established environmental-studies programs, and communities opened ecology centers. The number of environmental groups exploded. Thousands of Earth Day organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause.

The situation today is frustratingly like the dog days of 1969. A majority of Americans say they want government to act to minimize the threat of climate change, yet the polls haven't impressed most politicians. Many Americans are working on the issue, including many people who don't consider themselves environmentalists, but their efforts have not become a truly powerful force for reform. The People's Climate March -- spectacular as it was -- probably won't change that. Though the Obama administration has promised new regulations on power-plant emissions, the federal government still has not done nearly enough to encourage a shift to alternative forms of energy.

Nelson's success 45 years ago gives me hope that we can end the climate-change impasse. Of course, Earth Day 1970 can't be repeated. Yet I'm convinced that the Earth Day story offers three hopeful lessons for anyone working to avoid climate chaos.

We need a national conversation about climate change. For all that people have written and said about the subject, Americans have not truly paused to ponder what's at stake. What does climate change mean for our families, our communities, our dreams for the future? What are we willing and even eager to do to help deal with the many challenges climate change will bring? The heart of Earth Day 1970 was an unprecedented debate about "the environmental crisis," and the thousands of Earth Day teach-ins made history. If we have a similar dialogue about climate change, the discussions will be soul searching and empowering, and they will motivate people to act.

The climate-change conversation needs to go beyond arguments for government action. Though Senator Nelson hoped that Earth Day 1970 would lead to new laws, he didn't insist that Earth Day organizers follow a set agenda. That may seem counterintuitive: Issue activists typically want events to further specific goals. But Nelson's open-ended approach worked. The local organizers felt free to decide how best to make a difference. So did the millions of Earth Day participants. As a result, Earth Day nurtured a generation of entrepreneurial activists who pushed for reform in politics, the business world, academia, the professions, and community non-profits. The Earth Day generation made a difference in Washington and at the grassroots -- both immediately and for many years after 1970. We desperately need that breadth and depth of commitment now.

Like Earth Day 1970, a climate-change conversation needs a variety of sponsors. Senator Nelson understood that protecting the environment required more than the efforts of nature lovers. In addition to asking conservation organizations to support Earth Day, he reached out to labor unions, foundations, and business executives. He himself had taken strong stands on many issues: No one could say that the environment was his only interest. That kind of broad vision is even more crucial in building a climate-change movement. Climate change is much more than an environmental issue. It will affect our economy, our community life, and our national security. To move forward, we need a force bigger than the environmental movement.

The obstacles to success are formidable. Climate change is less visible day-to-day than pollution, and the opposition to forceful action is much better organized than in 1969. But the success of Earth Day 1970 also was no sure thing. Nelson tried several times to make protecting the environment a national priority before 1969, and his initial efforts all failed. He never gave up.