02/20/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

It's Time: Move America Forward on Climate

It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke:

"A bright-eyed college student from upstate New York, a soft-spoken Unitarian from Santa Barbara, California, an environmental justice advocate from the Texas Gulf Coast, and a retired elementary school teacher and grandmother from Nebraska all get on the same bus..."

But it's real -- an amazing grassroots movement demanding solutions to the climate crisis, which gained momentum from coast to coast in preparation for the Forward on Climate rally on February 17. The Sierra Club and, along with more than 120 partner organizations, joined tens of thousands of Americans who gathered in front of the White House the Sunday of President's Day weekend, making Forward on Climate one of the largest climate-related rallies in U.S. history.

Over the past few weeks, I've had the privilege of talking with activists who are organizing carpools, buses, and van rides, participating in phonebanks, building Facebook events, drumming up press coverage, and working around-the-clock to organize their communities for the Washington, D.C., rally.

The goal of the rally was to demand that President Obama move America forward on climate in 2013 with decisive action to reduce dangerous carbon pollution, phase out carbon-intensive fossil fuels, and lead the way in promoting energy efficiency and clean-energy sources. The first steps he must take are to finalize strong carbon-pollution standards for power plants and reject the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

John Bolenbaugh, a Navy veteran from Battle Creek, Michigan, will be participating in the rally. "I'm a different man than I used to be," John says. "I used to be just a normal union worker. I never thought I'd become an activist. But that all changed when I saw what these Big Oil companies were doing to my community."

In July 2010, a tar sands pipeline burst near Battle Creek, spilling more than a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. John worked for a Michigan-based company that was contracted by Enbridge, a Canadian tar sands oil company and the owner of the pipeline, to clean up the spill.

But after a few weeks on the job, John realized "they weren't cleaning up properly. Oil was being buried instead of cleaned up. And all that oil that was being buried could drip down into the groundwater. All these chemicals could make us sick."

John lodged complaints with the EPA, Enbridge, and his local employer about seeing the oil being buried. "No one would do anything about it," he says. "One night, I came to Enbridge and said, 'I live here, and I don't want to see this happen. Kids are swimming in the river.' The next day my boss let me go. It was a good job, and the economy is bad in Michigan. But I couldn't sleep at night, seeing all this happen."

Since losing his job, John has become an outspoken opponent of the Keystone pipeline, which would stretch 1,700 miles across American six states, carrying up to 830,000 barrels per day of toxic tar sands crude. And he is among the tens of thousands of people demanding that President Obama reject TransCanada's permits for the pipeline. Tar sands crude is the dirtiest oil on earth, with more heavy metals and cancer-causing toxins than conventional oil, and a production process that creates up to three times more climate-disrupting pollution. Tar sands pipelines are dangerous -- an earlier TransCanada pipeline suffered 14 spills in its first 12 months of operation.

John says he's traveling to Washington, D.C., to tell President Obama:

"I've seen the damage from a tar sands oil spill. It's killed people and poisoned our water and land. If you allow this pipeline to be built, Mr. President, it will happen again. There will be a spill along the pipeline route, and it could be above the aquifer that gives us 30 percent of our water in the Midwest. We can't let this happen."

John's voice -- along with those of the New York college student, the Santa Barbara churchgoer, the Texan environmental justice activist, and the Nebraska grandmother -- rang out loud and clear on February 17. President Obama must lead our nation in the transition to a clean-energy economy that will create jobs, clean our air and water, protect our wild places, and improve our health. It's time to move America Forward on Climate.