11/04/2013 08:33 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Year After Sandy, Action on Climate

Last October 29, Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast with incredible force. It was the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, spanning more than 1,100 miles from edge to edge. By the time the rains subsided, at least 117 lives had been lost and hundreds of thousands of homes had been damaged. All told, the storm caused more than $60 billion in damage to our communities. The New York City Office of Management and Budget estimated the total damage to the city to be $19 billion, inclusive of all private, public and indirect costs.

When it comes to the debate over global warming, hopefully future generations will look back on Hurricane Sandy as an event that helped break through partisanship and culture war divides to convince the American people that climate change is an urgent threat worth addressing.

Global warming made Sandy worse. Warming -- driven by fossil fuel pollution -- has contributed to a rise in sea level in the Northeast of about five inches over the last 60 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found this doubled the risk of Sandy-scale coastal flooding. Just think of what could happen if sea levels rose by three feet or more -- which is where scientists estimate we could be by the end of this century without action to reduce climate pollution. If we allow that to occur, it won't take a superstorm like Sandy to cause widespread destruction.

Coastal areas are not the only locations at risk. The consequences of climate pollution also include greater risk of droughts, more intense rainfall, hotter heat waves, higher levels of air pollution and greater risk of wildfires. At the same time, carbon dioxide pollution is acidifying the ocean, threatening marine ecosystems. These impacts threaten to disrupt agriculture, damage our communities and worsen our health.

The more climate pollution we emit, the more serious and potentially irreversible all of these problems will get. Coordinated action to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon pollution is urgent if we want to leave a stable climate to future generations. As President Obama said at a speech given in the sweltering heat of this past June at Georgetown University, "the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."

Fortunately, New York is showing a way forward by strengthening the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) -- a program to limit global warming emissions from power plants. This program has already helped to reduce emissions by more than a third since the program's conception in 2005. Once the new rules are in place, they will lower power plant pollution by an additional 15 percent within the decade. Through 2020, a strengthened RGGI will avoid about 90 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution -- the equivalent of the annual emissions from 16 million cars.

RGGI also helps New York make investments in clean energy solutions, like solar energy, wind power and energy efficiency. That helps shift our economy away from fossil fuels and accelerates our progress toward a future without climate pollution.

RGGI -- and other clean energy programs across the country -- are making a difference. In 2012, energy-related climate pollution in the United States was at its lowest level in almost 20 years.

Governor Cuomo and Jared Snyder, Assistant Commissioner of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, should be commended for their work to support RGGI.

But the actions we've taken thus far are clearly not enough to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. New York must do more to limit climate pollution, and the rest of the nation must follow New York's lead.

At the federal level, President Obama's proposed limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants would be a huge step forward. While we currently protect public health with limits on arsenic, lead, soot and other pollution from power plants, there are no existing federal limits on carbon pollution. Leaders at all levels of government in New York should support the president's action to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

We have an obligation to protect our children and future generations from the impacts of global warming. Let's hope that it won't take another Hurricane Sandy for the nation as a whole to find the courage and the wisdom to act.