02/13/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

We Must Act

"But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." --President Barack Obama, 2013 State of the Union

It is fitting that climate change featured prominently in the biggest political speech of the year. Our country is still absorbing the blow from 11 extreme weather events in 2012, including Super Storm Sandy, which alone cost more than $80 billion. We need presidential leadership to deal with this grave threat to our communities.

But I am just as interested in hearing what people say about climate change around their dinner tables as I am in hearing what President Obama says from the dais. It's these everyday conversations that matter, because real action will only occur when ordinary people start demanding it.

The president knows this himself.

Earlier this week the Director of the NRDC Action Fund met with President Obama's former Campaign Manager Jim Messina and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement John Carson. Messina told her that soon after the election he was on vacation in Italy when the president called him back to the White House and said: "We are not done yet."

The president wants to remain in campaign mode because the best way to achieve his goals is to build public momentum. He needs a surge of support outside of Washington if he wants to prevail in Washington. And so he has asked Messina and Carson to launch Organizing for Action, a group that will draw on the Obama campaign's ground game and data collection to mobilize people on immigration reform, gun control, climate action and job creation.

I take this as an inspiring sign. The president recognizes that the power to make change doesn't reside only in Washington; it sits within all of us. We can raise our voices, influence our friends, get our lawmakers' attention, and create our own groundswell.

History shows that legislation rarely leads people. Instead, people lead legislation. Cultural shifts take place, and then the government follows. Grassroots movements in the 1960s, for instance, led to the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. The quickest way to spot a corrupt piece of legislation is to read the newspaper and realize there is no public support for it; that means a lobbyist wrote the bill to benefit a client.

But when a member of Congress opens the paper and learns that people in his or her district are writing letters to the editor, attending rallies, and organizing community groups and business sectors in favor of climate action, then they know it's time to follow the public's lead.

Representative Dave Reichert (R-WA), for instance, knows the majority of his constituents care about climate change, so when he had the opportunity to vote on a clean energy and climate bill in 2010, he supported it. Some top donors gave him a hard time about that vote, but he told them in no uncertain terms he couldn't get reelected in his district if opposed climate action.

If we can make more members of Congress feel the same way, we can really get down to work. We can ensure President Obama has the support he needs to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants -- our nation's largest source of global warming pollution. We can create incentives for renewable energy, energy-efficient buildings, and clean cars. And we can even pass climate legislation in a few years.

But remember, this will only happen if the words President Obama Tuesday night are matched by public action. Educate your friends. Talk about climate change in our children's schools, our religious groups, and business associations. Call on these networks to join you at town hall events and rallies. And always keep the pressure on your lawmakers through email, Facebook, Twitter, and local office visits.

It's time for all of us who care about building a sustainable future to start leading while demanding our leaders do the same.