05/07/2013 02:49 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013


Living in the Bay Area (the ATM for politicians in the US) and doing advocacy work means that I see a lot of Senators. The Senate was on recess last week so most of the progressive elected officials came out to take in a Giants game and fundraise for their next race.

While this is the norm, one particular meeting this week really took me off guard. This particularly moderate Senator is a reliable vote for the environment, believes climate change is real and even has real world clean energy experience. So I looked forward to hearing a few enlightened pieces of advice for addressing carbon pollution. Unfortunately, he just mostly blamed the broken Congress.

Congress Isn't Off the Hook

Blaming a broken institution doesn't leave the members of Congress off the hook. While Congress may be too polarized to pass national climate legislation, Senators and Representatives should be out there building support for tackling one of the biggest economic and public health challenges of our time. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option when our country suffered 11 extreme weather events costing $1 billion in losses each last year.

And yet some clean energy and climate champions in Congress say the time isn't right to engage on climate change. They say if the president moves forward that's fine, but they won't stick their necks out on the issue.

But here we are, six months after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast, with more than 700 New York families still living in hotels because their homes were destroyed in the hurricane. Residents of Colorado Springs have to rebuild after a record-breaking fire ravaged the community last summer. And Texas farmers are praying they won't suffer another $76 million in crop losses like they did in the drought of 2012.

Across the country, Americans are coping with extreme weather that's been super-charged by climate change. We need leaders to step in and start protecting our families from these threats. The question is: where will that leadership come from? It can come from the White House because President Obama has the commitment and the authority to curb global warming pollution right now.

What If?

Rather than throwing up their hands--or worse, talking themselves into defeat--the members of Congress actually helped build support for presidential action? What if they talked to the public about climate solutions? What if they helped create the political space for America to confront climate change?
Some lawmakers are already doing this. Senator Jon Tester, for instance, is a third-generation, dry-land farmer from Montana. He recently published an op ed in USA Today in which he wrote: "Scientists tell us that climate change will bring shorter, warmer and drier winters to Montana. I see it every time I get on my tractor."

He described how changing weather patterns make it hard to know when to plant crops, and how pests like the sawfly now attack his crops before he can harvest them. He urged his neighbors to raise their voices, "because the experience of America's farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen and women will change the debate if policymakers start listening."

Tester didn't pay a political price for speaking the truth about climate in a purple state. Nor did he become overly associated with climate change or limit his ability to lead on other issues. Instead, he garnered praise in state and around the country. And he started a conversation with rural Americans about the hazards of unchecked climate change.

Other lawmakers could take similar steps. They could encourage colleges in their states to invest in clean energy curriculum and job training. They could challenge every mom living near a power plant to call for carbon reductions that would help clean up the air and reduce kids' asthma attacks. They could host town hall meetings during their August recess that focus on clean energy business opportunities in local communities.

And every chance they get, they can declare their support for President Obama using his authority to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants--the largest U.S. source of global warming pollution.
According to NRDC experts, the administration can cut carbon by 25 percent by 2020 and save the typical family up to $700 a year in electricity costs. These are great savings for lawmakers to trumpet.

They can also urge the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline for tar sands oil. Producing tar sands generates three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as conventional crude. Building the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would create the same carbon pollution as adding 5 million new cars to the road. President Obama cannot fight climate change and approve the Keystone XL pipeline at the same time. That's like trying to prevent lung cancer while expanding the market for cigarettes.

The final Keystone XL decision and the power plant standards rest with the White House. But Members of Congress can pave the way for presidential action. Rather than quietly whispering, "I'm with you on climate change, Mr. President, but I don't think we have a majority in the Senate," they can use their bully pulpits and educate their constituents.

Standing up for climate solutions doesn't require 60 votes. It just takes leadership.