08/28/2006 06:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

One Year After Katrina -- The Good, the Bad, and the Clueless

One year ago, Hurricane Katrina offered terrible evidence that our society had failed to respond to the challenge of global warming. We should have been inspired to demand more from our leaders. Instead, we've made only patchy progress, and we're nowhere near to meeting the human and environmental challenges. Why?

First of all, let's take a look at some good things that have happened in the past year:

-- A political reform movement got going in New Orleans and elected fresh blood to the City Council. Neighborhood activism and grass roots energy stepped into the vacuum left by local, state, and federal government.

-- Gulf Coast residents showed they weren't afraid to challenge the old ways, in court if necessary. The Sierra Club's Delta Chapter and the Vietnamese residents of the Versailles neighborhood succeeded -- so far at least -- in shutting down the abysmally dangerous Chef Menteur landfill.

-- Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco showed she wasn't afraid to stand up and insist that better technology be used on a proposed liquid natural gas terminal off her state -- and the project developer, after claiming that such a "closed loop" technology was not affordable, turned around and agreed to use it.

-- A number of innovative new ideas for developing the Mississippi Gulf Coast emerged from the State of Mississippi's official planning process, and eight of the eleven Gulf Coast cities "are actively pursuing SmartCode adoption" to carry out the plans from the Mississippi Renewal Forum and subsequent smart-growth planning processes.

But these successes, sadly, are more than overshadowed by the continuing failures:

-- There's no evidence that the Army Corps of Engineers has learned from the experience about where its priorities ought to lie. While the Corps has been rebuilding the levee system that it shamefully failed to oversee properly the first time around, it has shown no sign of taking seriously the need to the state's natural defenses. Louisiana's wetlands and barrier islands remain devastated by oil and gas development, ravaged by storms, and unable to protect the coast against future storms. And the useless and lethal "Mr. Go" Canal has not been closed off, leaving a weapon pointed at the heart of New Orleans. (The Corps does have enough manpower, however, to harass environmentalists like Sierra Club leader Jim Bensman who challenge its projects.)

-- FEMA, which was deprived of its leadership, resources, and authority when Bush became President, is still unable to do its job, even though it is under substantially better command. But the Agency still has no clear mandate to prepare for disasters before they happen, much less prevent them -- and it continues shameful practices such as providing Katrina refugees with mobile homes lethally laced with toxic formaldehyde.

-- The Gulf Coast continues to be seen by industry as a "free fire" dumping zone. Shortly after Katrina, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour suspended environmental regulations, which DuPont used as a justification to burn dioxin-contaminated debris at its hazardous plant in DeLisle, Mississippi. DuPont is on the run in other states for poisoning citizens with PFOA, a primary ingredient in making Teflon, and one that it's now clear is a serious human health risk. So the company is now proposing to bring PFOA wastes to its plant in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for treatment -- and has also announced that it will dump untreated PFOA waste into the Mississippi (correction) Pascagoula River. It's clear that these wastes, which originate in New Jersey, are being shipped to the Gulf Coast for treatment because environmental oversight is more lenient there. Both major newspapers on Mississippi's Gulf Coast have denounced the plans, but DuPont is still proceeding.

-- Instead of properly funding the restoration of the Coast, Congress has played games with the lives of the residents of the region by holding them hostage. If they want to get funding for their needs, Gulf Coast residents must sacrifice their remaining natural ecosystem to the oil and gas industry. Not only are Gulf Coast residents being put in this untenable position but so is the rest of the country. Funding for post-Katrina reconstruction has repeatedly been held hostage to unrelated proposals to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the California and Atlantic Coasts, or the Gulf of Mexico.

The fundamental problems can be summed up as a lack of leadership, a lack of vision, and a lack of integrity. Alas, preventing disasters before they happen is not a terrific way to raise campaign contributions. It doesn't lend itself to attacking your opponents in 30-second ads. Instead of partisan bickering, it requires coming together for the common good. And it offends special interests that see government as a source of private gain instead of public security. Cleaning up after a disaster is popular for the first few months, when it affords great photo-ops like the fakery Bush engaged in at St. Louis Cathedral, but that quickly pales before the addiction of politicians to chasing the next headline.

The American public knows we have a problem. In a recent poll, almost 60 percent said we are not ready to deal with another disaster, and only one in three gave Bush good marks for his handling of Katrina.

But it's not clear that the public understands the real root of the problem. If you don't believe that government is good for you, then you don't want it to be good for others. That is the core lesson of the past year. The reason why our government is not protecting us is because the current leadership in Washington -- both in the Administration and the Congress -- doesn't want it to be. If the national government were committed to protecting us, we could insist that it be strong, resolute, and adequately funded. But the predatory society that our current leaders relish depends on a national government that is weak, uncertain, bankrupt, and -- as a practical matter -- not necessary.

This Is What the Scientists Told Us Global Warming Would Be Like

Global warming is changing the insurance industry. Says Allstate CEO Edward Liddy: "We are in a period of increased land and sea surface temperatures. When you couple that with more people living along coasts and dramatically increased home values in those areas, that's when you step back and you say, 'Wait a minute. This is not yesterday's game.'"

And This Is What We Can Do About It

In a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Thursday night, Senator Dianne Feinstein offered a new Democratic outline of a plan to attack global warming in the next session of Congress -- and put political opponents on the defensive headed into the fall campaign season.