10/24/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Build a Clean-Energy Future

By now, we know what to expect if we fail to act on climate disruption: more severe storms, wildfires, droughts, and destruction. To avoid that future, we have to make stopping carbon pollution a priority.

But at the same time, people are also realizing that this is more than an urgent challenge -- it's a fantastic opportunity. We have the chance to do something that's never been done: build a society that is 100 percent powered by clean energy. Instead of being daunted, we should be thrilled.

When he laid out his Climate Action Plan last summer, President Obama touched on both the challenge and the opportunity ("I want America to build that future"). Then, last month, the EPA unveiled one of the most important elements of that plan: proposed safeguards to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants. The new standards are a huge step toward meeting the challenge, but they also show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to seizing our historic opportunity.

The good news is that these safeguards set the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that can be emitted by coal-fired power plants, which are our single biggest source of that pollution. Tough standards for carbon pollution will not only address climate disruption but also prevent life-threatening air pollution like toxic mercury, dirty soot, and the smog that triggers asthma attacks, so this is really good news indeed.

The not-so-good news is that the standards reveal the current limits of President Obama's vision. Because the standards do nothing to reduce carbon pollution from natural-gas-fired power plants, they stop short of going "all in" on clean energy. By giving natural gas a free pass, the president's policies haven't really committed to a clean-energy future.

To reach that future, we (and the president) need to do more than move beyond dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil. We need to move beyond pessimism -- the kind of thinking that limits our ambition and our willingness to fight for big ideas.

Once that happens, we'll have reached the true tipping point for clean energy. The change won't be linear: As we get bigger inventories of clean energy, the costs will come down and renewables will go head to head with fossil fuels everywhere -- and they'll win.

We're already seeing that begin to happen in places like Southern California, where a new gas plant was shelved because solar came in cheaper, and in Colorado, where the state's largest power provider plans to triple the amount of solar and wind that's coming online because it's cheaper and more reliable than gas or coal.

Although these carbon pollution safeguards will be a partial victory, the ground we gain will never be lost. That's the great thing about clean-energy progress. Once we leave fossil fuels behind, we will never go back. No one will tear down wind farms because they're nostalgic for fracking in our watersheds. People won't rip off solar panels because they miss having mercury in their tuna or asthma inhalers for their kids.

Not only are the EPA's proposed new carbon pollution safeguards taking us a step closer to the future we want, they also are building momentum for another, even greater step: proposed carbon pollution protections for existing power plants, which are due in the middle of next year.

You can help. After a delay because of the federal government shutdown, the EPA has begun holding a series of listening sessions across the country to solicit "ideas and input from the public and stakeholders about the best Clean Air Act approaches to reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants." Find out here if there's a session near you. If there is, speak up! Let the EPA know that the only way to go "all in" on a clean-energy future is to put polluting fossil fuels behind us for good.