07/05/2012 12:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

Sad Commentary

In many respects, the recent United Nations Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro was a sad commentary on the international community's -- and our own -- resolve to tackle the monumental challenge of ever increasing environmental degradation.

It was sad that President Obama would have risked condemnation had he joined the more than 100 other world leaders at the follow-up to the original international environmental Summit in Rio 20 years ago. The 2012 gathering's mission, after all, certainly seemed worthy of Obama's presence, considering it was to assure sustainable energy, potable fresh water and adequate food supplies for all peoples. What could be more germane to our long term national security and financial prosperity?

No matter. The official Republican line was that the president would be neglecting the domestic economy if he traveled to Brazil. But that was only half of it. Much of the GOP dismissed the U.N. Summit as a thinly veiled attempt to redistribute wealth from the industrial nations to the developing world. Adding insult to injury, many of these same politicians viewed the environmental threats highlighted at the Summit as overblown, particularly in regard to climate change. To them, and sad to say, a percentage of the American population, the Earth Summit was at best a waste of time, and at worst, an outright scam.

Another sad commentary was the relatively skimpy coverage of the Summit by the American media (whose output was dwarfed by the British and other international press). Thus, it was not surprising that the gravity of the conference's challenge gained relatively little traction on our shores.

It was also unfortunate that Obama was denounced by some shortsighted environmental organizations for not attending the gathering. The distressing political reality is that GOP economy-oriented propaganda might have siphoned away votes from Obama if he had gone to Rio. Did environmentalists really want to cost Obama public support in a close election, given that a Republican victory would likely result in rollbacks of existing regulatory protections?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed the U.S. Delegation and had sufficient stature to uphold our nation's reputation. But she could not work miracles in the absence of any substantial display of American leadership on global environmental reforms.

That leads to another sad commentary, captured in the observation of Michael Oko of the Washington-based World Resources Institute. Attending the Summit as a non-governmental participant, he lamented that "there continues to be a yawning disconnect between the urgency of the challenge we face and the urgency for action."

Seemingly falling on deaf ears was U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's admonition that "once in a generation comes an opportunity to map out a new course for economic aid and development. If we do not take firm action, we may be heading towards the end of our future."

Unfortunately, global fiscal troubles overshadowed the Summit's humanitarian and ecological objectives, blurring a reality noted by British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Echoing the position of thousands of non-governmental environmental activists attending the Summit, the British leader declared that "sacrificing the environment for growth is a big mistake. Long-term prosperity depends on a healthy sustainable environment."

For all practical purposes in official circles, Clegg was pretty much a voice in the wilderness.