11/05/2012 03:42 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Climate Change Hits Home

I've been working on solutions to the climate crisis for a long time, but I never really expected that it would hit home for me quite the way it did this week. The small town where I grew up, Chadwick Beach, NJ, and where my parents still live, was one of the many in the direct path of the superstorm Sandy.

My parents moved down to the Jersey Shore in 1965. Family legend has it that as they were scouting for a new place to live, my grandmother walked with my mom and dad to a lot on the edge of Barnegat Bay and said, "This looks like a beautiful place to raise a family." Together, my father and my uncle built the house I grew up in, then built another for my uncle's family on the other end of the street. My father started a construction business, and later became the mayor of Toms River Township. And my grandmother was right: it was an idyllic place to grow up; my wife and I still take our kids back home each summer. It's where I fell in love with the ocean and, by extension, all of nature, from redwood forests to alpine meadows.

Fortunately, my parents weren't home when the storm slammed into New Jersey. The damage along the shoreline is so extensive they haven't been able to get back to their house to learn the full extent of the damage. But my uncle's house is flooded, the restaurant where I bussed tables has been destroyed, and neighbors' houses have been spotted floating in the bay. I've seen photos online that show the homes just a few blocks from ours completely inundated, and the damage reports from friends are numbing. No one has seen anything like it before.

I wish I could say we'll never see anything like it again in our lifetimes, but that's not how the wind is blowing. Hurricane Sandy is only the latest and most devastating incident in a pattern of destructive weather that has become impossible to ignore. In 2011, the U.S. suffered through a record-high 14 weather events that caused at least $1 billion each in damages. So far this year, we've seen a drought that has devastated Midwestern farmers, historic wildfires that have laid waste to homes in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, Montana and beyond, and thousands of heat records broken across the nation. During the past 14 months, New York City has been forced to evacuate neighborhoods because of hurricanes for the first two times in its history. "If this is a trend," wrote Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his recent endorsement of Barack Obama, "it is unsustainable." He's right.

Here's something else we can't afford: Indecision. So, over the next several days and beyond, there are some things we need to do. First, and most urgently, we have to help the people throughout the Eastern Seaboard who are suffering. Please consider donating to the Red Cross or another relief organization.

Second, we need to do everything we can between today and tomorrow to help elect leaders -- from the top down -- who are committed to doing something about the climate crisis. As Mayor Bloomberg wrote, "One [candidate] sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not." He was referring to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but you could say the same of many races around the country. Almost every Senate race in the country, for example, pits one candidate who has pledged to help stop climate disruption against another candidate who denies the problem even exists.

Like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 assault, Hurricane Sandy has rocked our nation into full awareness of a threat to everything we hold dear. We must meet that challenge. But fighting climate change isn't just an obligation, it's also an opportunity to rebuild the middle class and strengthen our economy. Iowa now generates 25 percent of its power from wind, and has created a new wind manufacturing industry in-state. Ohio has some of the toughest new energy-efficiency standards in the nation, giving a boost to contractors throughout the state. Nationwide, our installed base of solar-energy has grown by a factor of five in less than four years. Wind energy has doubled. And U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down to their lowest levels in 20 years. The ongoing retirement of dirty coal plants, along with the stronger fuel-efficiency standards adopted by the Obama administration, will only build on this momentum.

Rebirth and renewal are a way of life on the Jersey Shore. Every summer we'd watch as the crowds rushed in, only to see them fade away after Labor Day. The beach community where I grew up may never be the same, but I know it will come back, and come back stronger. By rebuilding my hometown and all of America with smart, clean energy, we will not only curb climate change but also create a safer, healthier, more prosperous and more just society.