11 February 2008


11 February 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


“History has taught us that, in times of peril, when all seems lost, bringing together the greatest minds … to work together, with one common goal –- survival -– is the most effective way to prevail,” one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, Richard Branson, said, today, as he put forward the idea of creating “an environmental war room” to combat climate change at a Headquarters press conference.

Also speaking to the press in connection with the General Assembly’s two-day special debate –- “Addressing Climate Change:  The United Nations and the World at Work” –- were the President of the Assembly, Srgjan Kerim, and actress Daryl Hannah.

Mr. Branson announced that his enterprise, Virgin Group, had put up a $25-million prize to encourage scientists and inventors to find a way to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere, and he urged the world’s 20 wealthiest nations to match that amount to create the world’s largest-ever prize of half a billion dollars.  The winner of the prize could literally “save most of mankind”, he said.  If such a breakthrough took place, mankind would be able to regulate the Earth’s temperature by extracting carbon when it got too hot -– and by adding carbon when it was too cold.  “We have certainly sorted how to add carbon –- we just need to sort out how to extract it,” he said.

Elaborating on the “war room”, he said that it would respond to the need to create “an overall battle plan” in the fight against climate change.  It would be a nerve centre to catalyze and scale up innovative ideas that would have the most significant impact on ensuring humanity’s long-term sustainability.  It would be a unique combination of entrepreneurial muscle, the best possible data and the power to mobilize resources and influence policy.

The “war room” would identify all the best, and in some cases, radical ideas, map “who is doing what”, track and prioritize the impact of existing solutions on carbon reduction and conservation of ecological systems, he said.  It would also provide analysis of all the data collected and cost implications, focusing on identifying and prioritizing the best options, and develop global implementation plans with such partners as the United Nations.  Ideally, it would act as a tool for the United Nations and other bodies to help drive the right political policies.

When he opened today’s press conference, Mr. Kerim introduced Mr. Branson and Ms. Hannah as personalities who had “had no doubts from the very beginning that they should lead people in tackling climate change” as one of the most important global threats.  When preparing to take over as the President of the General Assembly last year, he had read about their preoccupation with the issue of climate change.  “They inspired me, so I invited them.  This is why we are here together,” he said, stressing the importance of finding solutions to the problem that was “transcending borders, nations, oceans and institutions”.

Mr. Kerim said he was encouraged that the political climate was changing, that ignorance was being replaced with awareness.  As a first step towards taking the agreements reached at the Bali Climate Change Conference at the end of last year, the General Assembly was holding a two-day debate to promote cooperation and build partnerships between various partners, including businesses, civil society, members of the academia, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations system.  The negotiation process had started among Member States on setting up targets concerning the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, but the Organization was aware that only with combined efforts of various actors could the global threat of global warming be addressed.

Ms. Hannah said that, to her, the issue of climate change came down to the question of values.  It was important for people to examine the ramifications of their actions and daily choices.  She was thrilled that there was such international support that over 112 Member States had requested the floor to discuss the subject of climate change.  It was also essential that individuals and non-governmental organizations received support of the international community, Governments and businesses.  She was thrilled that people were finally beginning to recognize the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Branson added that, whether one believed the planet had gone through the tipping point, beyond which nothing could be done to stop the heating of the Earth by 5 degrees, “with all the dire consequences that will come with that”, most scientists were in agreement that “we are close to it”.  However, he was convinced a winning strategy could be devised.  “The great minds are out there, but they are fighting in isolation,” he said.  A technological solution was perhaps the only real chance to avert a catastrophe.

Regarding the proposed “war room”, he added that it would not adhere to any one economic theory, but include economists, who might create a new theory in the long run.  As mentioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Bali, “we stand at the threshold of another great change:  the age of green economics”.  The “war room” would 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 would work alongside representatives from “green” organizations with whom they might have previously been at odds.

Using the visits by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and mediation of Kofi Annan and Graca Machel in Kenya as an example of a positive contribution from prominent figures, he added that the “war room” would need someone of the stature of Churchill to run it, and that any ideas would be welcome.

Asked what the General Assembly was planning to achieve during its debate on climate change, Mr. Kerim said that the United Nations wanted these two days to become a workshop.  That was why distinguished personalities, media representatives and businesspeople had been invited from all over the world.  It was not only to discuss the issue, but also look for solutions in all the areas affected by global warming, including the economy, health, good governance, energy, agriculture and security.  Mr. Branson’s initiative was among the contributions in that regard.

Responding to several questions regarding his proposal, Mr. Branson said that, while there was no shortage of ideas, there was no coordination and prioritization of those ideas today.  As a businessman, he had a new projects team, which sifted through the ideas and prioritized them in a certain order.  Through the “war room”, it was necessary to identify the best ideas and practices, offering “a shopping list” of what could be done to individual countries.

A correspondent asked who the enemy was, with talk in terms of war and war rooms.  Mr. Branson said that the real enemy was carbon in the atmosphere, as well as coal-based fire stations that did not sequestrate their coal.  It was necessary to promote better technologies.

He added that, rather than announce today that three major countries were “the enemy”, he would prefer to get the United States, India and China on board.  In fact, it was everyone’s hope that the United States would come on board within the next 18 months and that there would be a shift in Government policy.  All three remaining contenders for the American election believed that the world had a major problem, which needed to be addressed.

Asked if he had spoken to Al Gore about possibly running the “war room”, he said that he had not spoken to anybody yet.  There were currently five names on the list, but the Group was looking for other suggestions, as well.  Obviously, the name of Mr. Gore had been mentioned.

Was the whole world doomed, or were there some oases that would be safe from global warming? a correspondent asked.  Mr. Branson replied that, while some places would be safe to live, the number of such places would be few, and there would be a danger of land conflicts as a result.

To several questions about biofuels, he said that a lot of land was being put aside in the United States to make ethanol from corn.  However, sugar plantations lying idle in many countries, including India and Brazil, could create seven times as much fuel per acre as the land being put aside in the United States.  Thus, it would make more sense for the United States to use its land for food production.  The world would also benefit from the United States getting rid of the importation duty on sugar-based ethanol.

Ms. Hannah said that, today, there were many techniques that were much better suited for creating biofuels than the ones encouraged today, including the use of corn, which was “not necessarily the most efficient process”.  For example, algae held a great promise, as well as means of extracting ethanol from garbage.  Ultimately, it was important to look at sustainable production methods.  That was the real promise of biofuels, as opposed to cutting the rainforest for palm oil plantations, or creating fuels from food resources.

Responding to several other questions, Mr. Branson stressed the importance of reducing carbon output, to delay by a few years the 5-degree temperature rise.  However, he had a gut feeling that the world would need a major technological breakthrough in order to stop that.  He believed that, by offering a half-a-billion-dollar prize, it was possible to get a lot of people working on the problem.

To a question about the role of Hollywood, Ms. Hannah said that it was an ethical responsibility –- not only for entertainers, but for everybody –- to share information and model a different paradigm of success.  The current civilization was based on hideous conspicuous consumption, and the definition of success needed to be reinvented, to promote a more sensible life-style as “the American dream”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.