08/31/2007 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Katrina and Al

Two years ago, the Sierra Club was preparing for its first ever annual convention, The Sierra Summit, and former Vice-President Al Gore was preparing a speech for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners on the topic of "hurricane risk and global warming." Gore's speech was scheduled for what seemed likea very appropriate location -- New Orleans.

Then Katrina stepped in. The Commissioners never got to New Orleans. The Vice-President ended up speaking at The Sierra Summit in San Francisco instead. And almost no one needed a lecture on the consequences of global warming-fired hurricane risks.

Two years later, most of America is much better prepared, at least psychologically, for global warming. More than 700 cities have committed to reduce their greenhouse emissions immediately. Thirteen of the nation's most populous counties have agreed to reduce their emissions by 80 percent by mid century. And states from California to Florida, New Jersey to Hawaii, have adopted their own ambitious goals to find global warming solutions -- while areas like Chicago and Miami are engaged in serious preparations to deal with the consequences of whatever warming we don't avert.

Katrina and Al Gore's passion are probably the two biggest reasons.

Ironically, New Orleans, which woke America up, is one of the places where we have made the least progress. The levees have not been properly redesigned or engineered; the GO canal, which is a huge tidal bore aimed at the heart of the city, is still primed for the next big storm, and nothing has been done to begin restoring the wetlands that are South Louisiana's only true bulwark against storms coming in off the Gulf of Mexico. It's eerie to go back and read my blogs from the first months after the disaster -- I had actually forgotten just how clear it was from the beginning that Congress and the White House had no intention of taking reconstruction seriously. Within weeks of the disaster, the President had signed appropriations bills that failed to come up with the money needed to replace vital interstate highways on the Gulf, but did fund Don Young's "bridges to nowhere."

The federal, state, and local governments have all let New Orleans down shamefully. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that America has let New Orleans down as well. Often, federal agencies made things worse. Oprah this week featured the story of the toxic trailers, loaned by FEMA to Katrina refugees who had no idea they were laced with sometimes lethal levels of formaldehyde. Only after the Sierra Club and the House Committee on Oversight blew the whistle did FEMA agree that it would recycle toxic trailers by selling them to other families once their original occupants were resettled.

The few bright stories have involved almost heroic work by individual citizens and volunteers, some from the Crescent City, others from around the country who just came to help. The best portrait of this work was in this week's issue of The Nation, featuring, among others, Sierra Club activist Darryl Malek-Wiley. As author Rebecca Solnit put it, "If you measured the Lower Ninth Ward by will, solidarity and dedication, from both residents and far-flung volunteers and nonprofits, it would be among the best neighborhoods in the United States. If you measured it by infrastructure and probabilities, it looks pretty grim."

The whole story is worth reading and, oddly enough, it's upbeat and heartening even as it describes the overwhelming tragedy that Katrina -- and our government's failure -- has wrought in people's lives.

There is a lesson here -- we need to get ready. And, it turns out, we are, legally speaking, already committed. A recent Greenpeace report indicated that if the federal government had routinely completed the national assessment required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 -- assessments that the Bush Administration suppressed until ordered to follow the law by a federal court last week -- there would have been far more awareness on the Gulf Coasts that scientists knew that a global warming-juiced up hurricane would be more than the Gulf Coast could handle -- and people could have gotten out in time. Indeed, I laid out just such a "what if" scenario right after the disaster, showing how effective government response could have minimized the damage even from a super-storm like Katrina.