by Malcolm Curtis|Swisster|June 24, 2008 16:30
British billionaire Richard Branson called on the world’s political and business leaders Tuesday to treat climate change as seriously as a “third world war”. The owner of a conglomerate that includes Virgin Airlines, Branson told a Geneva conference that a “war room” was needed to tackle the environmental issue, in much the same way former British prime minister Winston Churchill approached the Second World War.
“Politicians and business leaders should be taking the global warning issue just as seriously,” he said. Branson was one of the feature panelists in a discussion on the opening day of the Global Humanitarian Forum’s first annual meeting at the Hotel Intercontinental.
The Geneva-based forum, headed by former United Nations’ secretary-general Kofi Annan, is focusing on the human impacts of global warming, particularly in poor countries least able to cope with the spinoff effects.
Most scientists agree that climate change is being hastened by emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Branson joined a panel that included former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, Maumoon Abdul Gayoon, president of the Maldives, and Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The group discussed the issue of “climate justice in a shared global ecosphere”, moderated by Mary Robinson, former Irish president and past UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “He’s in a pretty bad business when it comes to carbon emissions,” said Robinson, while introducing Branson to 250 delegates and journalists at the conference.
Rather than challenge the remark, the entrepreneur said he supported establishing a floor for fuel prices and favoured a carbon tax. Such measures would “put a useful dampener on some of the (airline industry’s) expansion”, Branson said.
“As far as polluters paying, definitely, I think they should,” he said, noting that those in a “dirty business” — including the airline industry — “should pay for the privilege”. Branson, who first made his fortune in the record store business and has since diversified into a dizzying number of ventures, including a luxury hotel at Verbier, is a late-convert to the green movement.
Formerly a global warming sceptic, he changed his views after meeting with former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore. Branson has since set up Virgin Fuels, which aims to provide cheaper alternatives to diesel and gasoline.
Last year, the flamboyant businessman established an “Earth Challenge”, which offers a 25-million-dollar prize to an individual or group with a commercially viable initiative that can reduce human-caused greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Branson told the Geneva conference that technology is one of the keys to solving the climate change problem, in addition to regulations set by political leaders.
Gayoon, the Maldives president, said that rising seas, related to global warming, are threatening the existence of his island nation in the Indian Ocean. A child born in the country today “may not see his life through” in the Maldives, he said.
Gayoon first raised the climate change issue through the UN more than 20 years ago. He expressed frustration over the lack of action taken by world leaders. Enjoying a secure environment should be a basic human right, he said.
The Global Humanitarian Forum was launched last year with support from the Swiss government and additional backing from Germany, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. The goal of the forum is to foster dialogue while bringing together business leaders, politicians and citizens to “broker partnerships and build political will” to deal with humanitarian challenges.
Annan opened the annual meeting with a speech in which he underlined the need for the world’s richest countries, who have so far failed to reach any agreements to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, to get their act together. “As an international community we must recognize that the polluter must pay, and not the poor and vulnerable,” he said.
Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, warned that climate change is not just about poor people — “it’s about everybody’. If the issue is portrayed as one mainly affecting poor countries, it will never be solved, said Sachs, who is also a UN adviser.
A carbon tax aimed at energy companies could provide funds to help the poorest countries and develop technologies for renewable resources, such as solar power, he said. Sachs depicted a scenario in which entrepreneurs may find a future in countries now written off as poor, in which “deserts will bloom”.
There might even be a “Virgin Desert,” he said, a reference that brought a grin from Branson. The two-day meeting wraps up on Wednesday afternoon.