06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Power of Earth Day in America

I'm strategizing and planning with the environmental community this morning, but wanted to emphasize something -- and I thought of it this morning listening to my morning radio:

If you've ever gotten caught up in the conventional wisdom of Washington that says no big change can happen, and politicians will always find the easy way out, please know that today is a reminder of how people power can turn that spin upside down overnight - and I know it because I was there and I saw it happen, and I saw it happen long before I had a vote in the Senate or an office in Washington, and it's why I still believe.

Forty years ago today, twenty million Americans -- fully one-tenth of our country's population at the time -- came together to express the wakeup call that was Earth Day 1970.

What'd it do? What'd it change?

Think about where we were that April: you had no EPA, no laws preventing lead paint from being used in people's homes or on babies' cribs, no one to safeguard our public drinking water -- polluters were even dumping medical waste into oceans. DDT and other pesticides were driving the bald eagle toward extinction. And by 1970, rivers were so dirty and polluted that some actually went up in flames.

I had just returned from Vietnam and I was first getting involved as an activist, and my brother Cam turned me on to the early organizing for Earth Day events in Massachusetts.

It's motivated me ever since -- knowing that the movement that exploded that day would force President Nixon himself -- a President who spied on me a year later -- to sign into law the EPA and the Clean Water Act and the first wave of legislation that changed the face of the environment. Trust me, I of all people know he didn't do those things because it was a nice thing to do, he did it because people -- not the elected or the connected, just the American people -- gave him no other choice.

All of the fights and all of the progress we've made since, really can be traced back to the energy generated on that first Earth Day. I know full well I couldn't have stopped the drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or beat back (Orwellian!) "reg reform" if politicians of my generation didn't feel -- or fear -- the force of that movement. It's called accountability.

And that's just my story -- there are many, many other people who could also talk about what Earth Day meant to them, how they took the energy of that day forward in fighting for our environment.

So what, you might ask. But I'm not just waxing nostalgic -- I'm telling you this is why I believe all the naysayers and nervous Nellies can be proven wrong and this can and must be the year -- our last and best shot -- to force Congress to pass climate and energy legislation; the comprehensive stuff, not the weak tea.

I've gone to I think almost every international environmental summit over the years, from Rio with Sen. Al Gore to Kyoto right through Copenhagen. At all of these meetings I've heard again and again: the world is ready to act on climate change -- but America must lead.

And I still think we're ready to lead. But it will only happen if you force Washington to feel your frustration and your exasperation and your urgency.

And what's most important, I believe we can get to 60 votes -- not easily, not without struggle -- but we can get there this year. Day in and day out, this is what I'm working to do with Lindsey Graham -- a Republican -- and colleagues who have to vote on it -- to button up legislation that will make it through the Senate, really reduce carbon pollution, and build a new energy economy that makes good on President Obama's Copenhagen pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020. This matches the aim set out in the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House of Representatives last June, and this emissions reduction will help combat the worst of global climate change.

And here's what I'm saying and what we need you to demand: this is the way to transform our energy economy and put Americans back in control of our energy production, instead of sending so much of our money to oil-rich regimes around the world (yes, $100 million every day to Iran!) and create millions -- millions -- of the clean energy jobs that can power our economy in the next century.

So, please, keep the pressure on -- make it clear you think this is the most important thing we can do this year -- and let's go win another one.