Last year was the hottest year on record in the United States. Approximately one-third of the U.S. population experienced 100-degree temperatures for 10 or more days.  Wildfires across the country burned a record 9.3 million acres of land. In Chicago, April’s heavy flooding caused the city’s aged and overwhelmed infrastructure to back up, dumping 11 billion gallons of wastewater back into Lake Michigan, the city’s drinking water source. Between 2007 and 2011, the federal government and private insurers paid some $660 million in residential flooding and sewage back-up claims in Chicago’s Cook County, alone. Texas experienced record-setting drought between 2010 and 2011 — the driest in state history – causing a $5 billion agricultural loss, including 500 million trees. And in 2012, Superstorm Sandy turned inland, causing devastating loss of life and billions of dollars in land and property damage in New York and New Jersey. Last year alone, damage from extreme weather conditions cost Americans more than $100 billion.

If you’ve only half-heartedly listened to warnings about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and the rapid degradation of fresh water, casually clicked off the news after watching footage of withering crops and spreading wildfires, it’s time to stop being a sideline observer and join the fight to protect our planet. President Obama’s new climate action plan puts Americans on the right track.

In his comprehensive plan, President Obama lays out the many steps that have already been taken to reduce the United States’ impact on climate as well as a planned series of executive action to decrease carbon pollution, prepare the United States for the impact of climate change and lead international efforts to address global change. The Administration has directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants.

Among many other components, President Obama has authorized an increase in funding for clean energy technology; is developing new fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles; and  is encouraging private sectors, under the Clean Air Act, to invest in low emissions technology. The President said the federal government also will lead by example, pledging to use renewable sources to power 20 percent of its electricity by 2020.

In response to President Obama’s plan, The Nature Conservancy president and CEO Mark Tercek, commended the President’s efforts and welcomed the opportunity to address climate change. Tercek said, “President Obama has recognized that climate change is here, it is an acute risk to human well-being and it demands a global response. I am grateful for the President’s broad approach. The single most reckless, risky and costly choice would be to do nothing.”

While the Conservancy works in many rural and even remote areas, it is the urban areas, where nearly half of the entire U.S. population lives and where African American communities are most dense, that are starting to feel the heat. A report by the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative says African Americans produce only about 9 percent of carbon dioxide emissions — the biggest contributor to climate change — yet heat-related deaths in Black communities are likely to occur at 150 to 200 percent greater rate than in communities of non-Hispanic Whites. Carbon dioxide also leads to other complications like asthma, which impacts Blacks at a 36 percent higher rate than Whites.

That’s why the Conservancy launched the Urban Strategies initiative in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston. The plan addresses some of these cities’ biggest problems including water scarcity, coastal resilience, valuing and protecting urban forests, and getting people out into nature. Michelle Carr, who leads the Illinois chapter of the Conservancy in Chicago, said she is encouraged that there is now a federal push to protect the environment from climate change.

“It’s really time to clean up our act,” Carr said. “This is everyone’s problem and everyone – from business owners, residents and federal, state and local government – needs to be engaged and actively working to protect our shores, forests and waterway systems. We’ve also got to be proactive in helping residents adapt to the changing weather dynamics.”

It is key for groups to work with nature, not against it, striking the right balance between man-made and natural infrastructure and adapting conservation planning to maximize benefits for both people and nature. The Nature Conservancy supports President Obama’s climate plan and we support a healthy planet. The time to act is now. It’s time to work locally, taking small steps to reduce damage to the earth.