Addressing Climate Change: The United Nations and the World at Work

Keynote address by Sir Richard Branson

Thank you President Kerim and Daryl, it is an honour to be here today amongst so many people who have dedicated their lives to tackling the issue of climate change and peace in this world. 

“There are no boundaries in the real Planet Earth. No United States, no Russia, no China, no Taiwan. Rivers flow unimpeded across the swaths of continents. The persistent tides, the pulse of the sea do not discriminate; they push against all the varied shores on Earth.”  

What a beautiful, if terrifyingly apt, insight Cousteau had into our world given the crisis we are here to talk about today.

I could quote many inspirational leaders across the decades who have quoted similar truths.  ‘One world – one people’ has been the rally cry of many of our greatest minds:  a cry used to highlight the pointlessness of religious persecution when in reality we are one people; to rage against the shame and horror of one half of the world standing by while the other half suffers the horrors of disease and starvation; a cry to try and influence those who wage barbaric wars around the world placing territorial gain above human life and a cry to alert the world to the biggest crisis we as one people have ever faced – Global Warming.

“There are no boundaries in the real Planet Earth.”

Unfortunately in many areas of the world the wars and apathy continue.  Wars in the name of religion take on more sinister and indiscriminate forms.  Whole continents such as Africa continue to be ravaged by three of the most deadly diseases in the world and millions continue to die.  Both the western and eastern world still turns a blind eye to the victims of territorial wars in areas of the world in which neither has any real economic interest. 

And climate change continues, the quietest, most sinister, most deadly threat of all.

Before the age of mass communication by radio, television and the internet - the world could be forgiven for inaction, for its ignorance. 

Today there is no excuse for inaction, no excuse for ignorance – to turn a blind eye in the 21st Century is unforgivable. 

These communication tools bringing us together as one global village are also giving us the opportunity to form some unlikely partnerships in order to work together to stop human suffering.  For example, many organisations both in the public and private sector are joining together in a new War Room in Sub Saharan Africa to fight AIDS, TB, Malaria and other diseases that are unbelievably continuing to kill thousands of people every single day.  A war room that will help to coordinate the hundreds of thousands of organisations doing good work and will seek out best practises.  Other groups such as The Elders, made up of some of the most inspirational leaders of our time come from diverse backgrounds ranging from incredible civil society leaders to past heads of states.  They have come together as an independent group to work with The UN and other organisations to use their collective wisdom and moral courage to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. 

At this crucial point in time in order to fight climate change, there is a wonderful opportunity to create a similar powerful partnership that helps to scale up the best innovations by bringing together business leaders, economists, scientists, environmental groups and other expert organisations to tackle the war against global warming.

And it is a war.  The first war that truly threatens almost all human life - a war that to win we must all fight together - one world, one people.

We all recognise that we only have a short two years to really come together on an agreement for the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol.   The private sector, public sector and civil society must join forces to build a common framework that can take on this challenge with the urgency and scale required. 

The UN is doing excellent work in helping to truly build a global framework for the response which includes everything from highlighting the threat of climate change, to helping build the ground rules for business, to bringing together the greatest climate scientists in the world to prove that this threat is real, to a whole host of other activities that many of you in the room are driving.   The Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly are showing true leadership and spearheading the seriousness with which the UN is approaching this war against climate change.  As the President mentioned this morning – the time is now for practical action, effective partnerships and a common vision.  

But there is so much more that the rest of the global community can do by putting aside our differences and forgetting the usual ‘rules’ of commercial secrecy and individual agendas.  Historically, when the world has tried to tackle large scale issues such as HIV/AIDS, rather than coming together as one common humanity, thousands of splintered groups have developed causing confusion and a lack of a truly swift global response.  We have an opportunity in this fight to have a coordinated effective and innovative approach.  Science, business, technological, environmental, government and communications leaders need to come together, in partnership.

So how far on the back foot in this war are we?  Have we lost the fight before having the chance to fight back?

There are some eminent scientists who believe we have already gone through the tipping point and that there is nothing mankind can do now to stop the earth heating up by 5 degrees with all the dire consequences that comes with that.  James Lovelock for instance goes further than the UN report and believes we will have lost the floating Arctic ice within ten years and that the 5 degrees rise is possible within 40 years, rather than 80 years predicted by the UN. 

However, unlike the UN report he believes the earth will stabilise at a 5 degree rise – that there will be survivors – but much of the lush and comfortable world that we now enjoy will be gone and it will change into largely a featureless desert.  The loss of life that will occur is likely to be quite gigantic.  We’ll be in a world were nowhere near enough food is being grown – or enough water will be available - to support the huge population we have.

Whether you believe we’ve gone through the tipping point or not - most scientists are in agreement that we’re close to it.

It doesn’t look good, does it?

History has taught us that in times of peril, when all seems lost, bringing together the greatest minds of a nation to work together, with one common goal – survival – is the most effective way to prevail.

I’m convinced a winning strategy can be devised.  The great minds are out there – but they are fighting in isolation. 

Until now the emphasis of environmentally aware governments has been how to reduce Carbon output.  This emphasis should continue as an insurance policy and may delay by a few years the 5 degree rise in the earth’s temperature.  Hopefully as the Stern report showed, this insurance policy will also lead to economic benefits as reducing emissions will be far cheaper than the harm from the impacts of adapting to a new reality.

But in order to respond to this issue with the speed that is necessary, far more emphasis needs to be placed on finding scientific and technological solutions to the problem.  A technological solution is perhaps the only real chance to avert a catastrophe

We all need to play a role in rallying all the scientists, engineers and inventors worldwide with a common purpose in mind to find a way to extract carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere.  If such a breakthrough could take place mankind would be able to regulate the earth’s temperature.  By extracting Carbon when it’s getting too hot – and by adding Carbon when it’s too cold.  We have certainly sorted how to add carbon – we just need to sort out how to extract it.  It can not be beyond the wit of man to crack this problem.

We at Virgin have put up a $25 million dollar prize to encourage scientists and inventors to put their mind to it.  Today we’d like to urge the 20 wealthiest Governments to match us in this endeavour so we can make this the largest scientific prize ever.  A half a billion dollar prize.  All of us should be delighted to write our 25 million dollar cheques because the successful person could literally have saved most of mankind!

But like all wars this one may have to be fought on many ‘fronts’.  How to extract carbon represents only one ‘front’.  It’s a battle that may never be won.  We need an overall battle plan.  We need a War Room.

So today I’d like to propose that we create an Environmental War Room.    This ‘War Room’ will be a nerve centre to catalyze and scale up innovative ideas that will have the most significant impact on ensuring the long term sustainability for humanity on the planet. 

This ‘War Room’ will be a unique combination of: entrepreneurial muscle, the best possible data and the power to mobilise resources and influence policy.

The ‘War Room’ will identify all the best (and in some cases radical) ideas, map who is doing what, track and prioritise the impact of existing solutions on carbon reduction and conservation of ecological systems.  It will provide analysis of all the data collected – focusing on identifying and prioritising the best options, cost implications and develop global implementation plans with partners such as the UN.  It will never duplicate efforts, but instead act as a catalyst to bring together relevant public and private organisations, businesses and governments to drive action on a large scale.  A powerful combination of innovation, intelligence and the right resources in order to fight one of the largest battles of our lifetime.

The ‘War Room’ will be independent of politics – but will ideally act as a tool for the UN and other bodies to help drive the right political policies.  It will not adhere to any one economic theory but include economists who may have differing theories but be great economic brains – in the long-term a new theory of world economics may need to be created – as mentioned by the Secretary General in his speech in Bali “we stand at the threshold of another great change: the age of green economics”.  It will draw on the knowledge of many scientists - those respected by their peers and those with slightly more radical solutions and ideas.  Representatives from big business and finance will work alongside representatives from ‘green’ organisations with whom they may previously have been at odds.   It will be a collection of ‘best’ of class brought together for the good of all.

The War Room could support the great work of the UN bodies represented in this room.  Critical to its success will be the forming of a strong partnership with all of you to ensure that innovative ideas from all over the world are fed into the ‘war room’ and that information is provided from the ‘war room’ to support the UN’s efforts.  

It will be a truly global ‘war room’ – that will fight this war on all ‘fronts’.

Should a technological solution fail to be found it will start to prepare the world for the consequences of a 5 degree rise in temperature and look at ways of mitigating the worst effects.  It will come up with ideas that need the global communities backing such as happened when CFC gasses were banned to deal with the hole in the ozone layer.

There will be radical ideas that will come into the war room that initially the world community will say “you can’t do that!” many of these radical ideas will be rejected for good reason.  But they will be debated all the same.  Let me give you an example of one such idea that may or may not see the light of day. 

It is now widely accepted that rising sea levels, as a result of global warming, will destroy hundreds of thousands of homes in coastal towns all over the world and displace millions of the world’s population.  But what if today we start planning to create massive inland lakes in Africa, Asia, Australia, North Canada and South America, where there aren’t people and homes, using fresh water from rivers that would otherwise have gone into the sea.  These inland seas can be created as sea levels start to rise with the aim of keeping sea levels as they are at present.  They will also - as water - have an added benefit in helping cool the earth down.  They will help create more rain in desert regions - which in turn will create more trees - which in turn will absorb more carbon.  Perhaps it will be better to plan where all this rising water is going rather than let nature itself decide. 

The Environmental or Global Warming War Room can evaluate and cost out large ideas like this.  The War Room can support the negotiation of compensation costs with individual countries.  But in the end it will need the United Nations, governments and other organisations to help make sure implementation happens.

To quote one of the most famous advocates of the need for a War Room, Sir Winston Churchill:  “One ought never to turn ones back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything.  Never!”

The formation of The Elders has shown that it is possible to bring together experts and inspirational leaders from all over the world to work together in times of crisis.  It was wonderful news to see that visits by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and mediation by two of The Elders Kofi Annan and Graca Machel have made considerable headway in Kenya.  I truly believe that the same can be achieved through the setting up of an environmental ‘War Room’ to lead our fight against climate change.  A War Room will need someone of the stature of Churchill to run it and we’d love your help in finding that person.

Incredible technological breakthrough’s – on both sides took place in the five years that men and women were up against it during the second world war.  As Lovelock remembered “all that counted then was how could problems be solved today or better yesterday.”

Codes were decoded, penicillin was invented, breakthroughs in radar research lead to a new understanding of our universe.  The pressures of war led Braun to develop rockets which resulted in man going to the moon.  Everyone – individuals, businesses and governments stood together and re-tooled their economies to create what they needed to fight the war.

In times of crisis the impossible, through the strength of the human spirit, becomes possible.